Jazz Noir

There are quite a few less conventional musicals that New Line has produced which serve as touchstones for me, shows that taught me important lessons, that expanded my vocabulary, that forced me into solving problems I thought were unsolvable.

Among that group are Hair, Bat Boy, Urinetown, The Robber Bridegroom, March of the Falsettos, Floyd Collins, Songs for a New World, Jacques Brel...

And maybe even more than the others, Andrew Lippa's brilliant Wild Party is one of those shows. What a challenging damn show that was to stage, to even conceive of how it should look and move. But we decoded it and we nailed its very special style and tone.

Working on and decoding that show taught me that musical staging can be fully expressionistic, having no specific concrete meaning, but expressing emotion, tension, opposition, psychology. I had used expressionistic staging before to some extent over the years, but Wild Party was the first show in which the movement for the entire show should be expressionistic. I found myself using circles (one of my favorite devices) but in new ways, to show opposition, to show chaos; I found myself using conventional movement but interrupting it, reversing it, perverting it, deconstructing it.

When I started working on The Sweet Smell of Success, I thought it was going to work a lot like Wild Party. The music is almost as continuous in Sweet Smell as it is in Wild Party, but Sweet Smell is a different kind of story. While Wild Party is wildly, passionately emotional, so much of Sweet Smell is cold as fucking ice. Sure emotions erupt in this story, but most of these character are icy, calculating cynics.

The real tragedy of this story is that Susan and Dallas (and Rita) are just normal people who feel normal human emotions, but they're surrounded by emotional pod people in J.J., Sidney, Madge, Kello, and the others, devoid of empathy. The only thing Sidney ever feels is fear.

And I've realized four things as I've been blocking.

First, this show is a double Faust story. Sidney sells his soul to J.J., but Sidney never really had much of a soul to begin with. And Susan sells her soul to Sidney, which is the real tragedy. Every time I hear Susan's song "What If" in the first act, I want to scream at her, "Don't do it! Don't become them!" The minute she decides she will lie and manipulate like everybody else, she assures tragedy.

Second, actors and directors love high stakes in a story. It gives the actor something really juicy and dramatic to chew on, and it give the audience the most compelling reason to engage. And Sweet Smell of Success has impossibly high stakes. Either Sidney's entire future is destroyed or Susan's is. There's no compromise possible, no win-win scenario. (The same is true of Bat Boy.)

Third, Susan is the protagonist of this story. She's the only character who makes choices, who chooses her own path, and who learns and grows by the end.

Fourth, this isn't just a drama; it's a thriller. We've realized over the last few rehearsals that the story of Sweet Smell is very parallel to Sweeney Todd, only in our show J.J. is both Sweeney and Judge Turpin. Pretty creepy...

I've realized that Sweet Smell is fundamentally film noir, or as I've been calling it "jazz noir" (which I discovered is actually a thing, although it has a bunch of different meanings). Film noir is economical, minimalist, austere, almost self-aware. It's not about emotion. So cool, detached jazz is the perfect musical language for these people.

But musicals are about emotion, right?

The beauty of Sweet Smell is that there are powerful emotions at play here, but only among Dallas, Susan, and Rita, and they all get, lush, rich music to express that emotion, in "I Can Not Hear the City," "Don't Know Where You Leave Off," and "Rita's Tune." The only time Sidney gets lush music like that is in the song "At the Fountain," where for just a moment, Sidney feels something like joy. But it won't last.

After all, this is a Faust story.

Understanding all that led me to decide that this show shouldn't be nearly as dancy as Wild Party. We have hired New Liner Taylor Pietz to choreograph because there are some real dance numbers, but during the rest of the show, the ensemble is a Greek Chorus, much more so than a usual musical theatre chorus. They are narrators, the public, Sidney's conscience, social commentators, devils, and all the Little People in Sidney and J.J.'s orbit. They're used in an unconventional way for a musical, so we shouldn't treat them as if they're conventional.

For much of the show, our ensemble will be on a raised platform, stage-right, hanging out, drinking, reading the paper, watching our story, and commenting. They'll leave the platform now and then, but that will be their perch. I think it will be cool for them to watch so much of the action. As with a few other shows we've done, this ensemble will be both inside the action and outside the action, occasionally at the same time.

The writing is really extraordinary, so I think everything will be very clear to the audience. This script is very film-like in the way it transitions between scene and locations, which I love, and it's so carefully and beautifully crafted, I'm confident it will guide our audience through this thicket of lies and schemes that is our story.

We just have to get out of the way.

A local reviewer recently marveled at seeing a "close-up" onstage, but stage directors have been stealing and adapting film techniques at least as far back as Michael Bennett's work on Dreamgirls, and probably back even further. Musical theatre directors now regularly use devices like zooms, close-ups, focus pulls, pans, split-screen, montages; which allows bookwriters to fashion much more continuous, uninterrupted action, what I like to call Perpetual Motion Machines.

Of course the other thing that freed musical theatre writers is the realization that the stage is at its best when it delivers what film cannot. When the stage asks its audience to fill in the details of environment, even costumes, when the stage requires the audience's imaginations to complete the act of storytelling, when the audience participates in the storytelling, they're much more engaged and they have a much better time,

All of this is there in Sweet Smell of Success. Rob Lippert has designed for us an exquisite expressionistic 1950s nighttime New York, that will suggest time and place, but also mood and character. We've finished blocking Act I and now we move on to Act II, where the pace of the story shifts into hyper-drive.

I started this project thinking this was a show in which I needed to be "clever," to make "pretty pictures," etc. It's not. My job with staging is nothing more than Clarity. I have to make sure the audience knows what's important at any given moment and that nothing gets in the way of their understanding. The less physical movement we use, the more the audience will focus on content. Humans are visual creatures first, so if you give an audience too much to look at, they will focus less on lyrics, story, character, etc. If I want the audience to really focus on a moment, we eliminate as much movement as possible.

That's why Elaine Stritch famously sat in a chair for almost all of "The Ladies Who Lunch" in the original production of Company. She barely moved at all, till the end of the song when she stood up for "Rise!"

Lots to think about with this endlessly rich, complex, amazing writing. All of us are already so anxious to share this with our audiences.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

The Sweet Smell of Success

I used to go to New York at least once a year to see shows. Recently, neither New Line nor I have been able to afford to send me, so I settle for bootleg videos (don't judge me!). But I have seen a lot of really wonderful shows in New York over the years, quite a few of which New Line has produced soon after. In fact, our company has been the first to produce several musicals after their Broadway or off Broadway runs, short runs in many cases, 'cause that's the kind of weirdo, tourist-unfriendly shows we like...

It was in 2002 that I saw The Sweet Smell of Success on Broadway. I loved a lot about it, but somehow it didn't totally work for me. Now that I'm working on the show, I think I understand what it was missing. First, it's a very intimate story about four people with incredibly volatile, complicated relationships, and even though I had good seats, the theatre was too big for us to connect to these people emotionally, so that the tragedy of the ending couldn't really gobsmack the audience the way it should. I think doing the show in a 140-seat blackbox will fix that problem. There will be no distance from these ugly, ferocious, fragile emotions, no safety.

Second, this is almost a jazz opera. Like Sweeney, the music only stops periodically, to underline certain moments, to punctuate the flow of the story. But this kind of 1950s club jazz, as filtered through Marvin Hamlisch's rich, dissonant film and Broadway sound isn't a big, heavy, orchestral thing; it's an up-close, sweaty, sexy, subtle thing. A full Broadway orchestra, a big stage, and a big chorus, took the urban and the desperate out of this story. Our band will be two keyboards, bass, drums, reeds, and trumpet. The kind of sound you'd hear in a jazz club in the 50s.

The third thing was J.J. Hunsecker, the Devil/Evil Wizard figure in this Faustian tale. He's thoroughly despicable, deeply, irretrievably fucked up. And genuinely powerful. As much as I love John Lithgow, who created the role, I now think he didn't really access the full darkness of this terrifying man. Zak Farmer will play the role for us, and he specializes in deeply fucked-up villains. And again, the intimacy of our theatre will allow Zak to do much more subtle, more interesting work than Lithgow could do in a Broadway house.

A couple years ago, I came across a bootleg video of Sweet Smell of Success, and I really did love the material, so I watched it again. And it worked much better for me than it did the first time. I think it was because most of the video was shot in close-up. The bootleg provided the intimacy the theatre itself couldn't, the kind of intimacy which the Marcelle Theater gives the New Liners.

The reviews of the Broadway production weren't great, but I think many of them really missed the point. This isn't a conventional musical, if there even is such a thing anymore, and that's how they judged it. Like almost every show we produce at New Line, Sweet Smell is sui generis, one of a kind. But like a few other shows we've done in recent seasons, The Sweet Smell of Success is a moral thriller. It will leave you breathless, and the Act I finale is a killer cliffhanger! More than any other show I've worked on, this show is a virtuosic translation to the musical stage of the devices, tone, and atmosphere of film noir.

Which reminds me... one of the coolest things about The Sweet Smell of Success is that the story is so different in its three different forms, first as a short story by Lehman Engel, then a greatly expanded screenplay also by Engel, and then this jazz noir stage musical. Each one is so different from the others, each one brings unique elements to the story, and yet they all feel like they are fashioned from the same clay, each one so right in relation to the other two.

I was sick the first week of rehearsals, so I didn't start my blogging like usual. By now, we've finished learning the score, and Taylor Pietz has choreographed three of the four dances. Starting next week, I block the show. I've worked out all of Act I, and I may wait to work on Act II until after I see how my Act I blocking works... But I feel pretty good about what I've got.

Even though there aren't any other musicals quite like this, there are other shows that taught me lessons I can apply here. Working on Andrew Lippa's genius Wild Party was a show in which 90% of the staging was to music, with an ensemble both inside and outside the story at the same time, living the story and narrating it directly to us. Though Sweet Smell shouldn't look as stylized as Wild Party, it's very theatrical, very music driven, and constantly bursting through the Fourth Wall.

I think there are two keys to this show. First, we really have to swim in the period and the jazz. I've asked Rob for an all-blue, New York, 1950s set. Wait till you see it. There's an attitude to this world that's pretty foreign to us; we have to find it and get comfortable with it.

Second, we cannot fear the Darkness. As the great scholar Joseph Campbell taught us, in many Hero Myth stories, the hero has to go to the Underworld to do battle with the Evil Wizard and learn something about himself. You can't get more Under than the 1952 world of New York newspaper gossip. We have to embrace the Dark Side. That's our story.

I'm reading some great books about that time and place, and about Walter Winchell, the real life Broadway columnist that J.J. Hunsecker is based on. What surprised me the most -- and it made me understand better the high stakes in our story -- was that sixty million Americans across the country read Winchell's nasty, petty, shitty gossip column every morning over their coffee. Sixty Million People. That's close to half of all the men, women, and children in America.

This horrifying idea is explained in Act II as our Greek Chorus of press agents sing:
It's the reason I read.
It's an animal need.
I don't pick up the paper
For the sports or the news;
Those ain't the sport
That I choose.

With my bacon and eggs.
They go together like a skirt,
And a nice pair of legs.
Got the ink on my fingers,
Got the smudge of a smear.
Oh my!
What dirt we got here!

By the end of this song, you might be laughing, but you'll also realize deep down that J.J. only has power because sixty million people want their morning dirt. Like Chicago, Sweet Smell lays the responsibility for this nightmare world right at our feet.

But I don't read gossip columns. Yeah, nice try. Do you ever read the headlines of the tabloids at the checkout? Do you ever watch Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, or E!...? Do you click on celebrity stories your friends share on Facebook?

I honestly don't. And maybe you don't either. But a hell of a lot of people do.
Got a hunger to feed,
Got a hunger and a thirst,
Gimme, gimme some dirt, take me down in the dirt!
It's an animal need!
Give it to me in the First Amendment!
Give me something that can get me through,
Something dirty on the whole who's-who
And keep this in mind as you dirt:
It don't have to be true...
Don't have to be true...
Don't have to be true...

Oklahoma! this ain't. In the age of Fox News, Breitbart, social media, and Fake News, The Sweet Smell of Success may be even more timely than it was when Hamlisch, lyricist Craig Carnelia, and playwright John Guare wrote it in 2002. This is muscular, fearless, adult musical theatre about the real world. Today's real world.

So we don't forget that information is power. And power corrupts.

It's already been such a great ride, working on this amazing piece, this rich, gorgeous music, these brilliant, caustic, acrobatic rhymes; now we get to really dive into these dark, complicated characters and their deliciously acid dialogue.

Another wild, awesome adventure!

Long Live the Musical!

The Impossible Dream

There are a lot of theatre songs that a lot of people fundamentally misunderstand, like "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in Gypsy and "Life of the Party" in Lippa's Wild Party, neither of which is happy, in case you're not sure.

But the one that hurts me the most is "The Quest." What? You don't know that one? Yeah, that's 'cause the pop singers called it by its subtitle, "The Impossible Dream." So many people perform it like this big, majestic anthem, with a shameless money note at the end. That's the opposite of what this song is.

It's a prayer. It's about humility. Don Quixote would never approve of a show-off who goes for a money note at the end of a prayer! The life of a Knight Errant is about service and humility, not ego.

One of the central questions of the play is whether it is crazy to see only the best in people and in the world. In Quixote's case, part of what people find insane about him is his utter selflessness, that everything he does is for others. It's not his optimism and his idealism which make people doubt his sanity; it's his extremism. Nothing in his life is done in moderation.

As he sings in “The Quest,” Quixote's goal is:
To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go.

To right the unrightable wrong,
To love pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star.

Think about that lyric. These all sound like noble aims, but they are aims which cannot be realized. What does it really mean "to fight the unbeatable foe"? If he is unbeatable, why on earth would you fight him? Why should a person attempt something at which he can never succeed? Quixote (and the musical's creators) believes that by setting your goals low, you won't achieve everything you're capable of, that the struggle is more important than the achievement.

That's also the point of every story based on the classic Hero Myth. It's the journey that shapes us, not the destination. Or as a shared Facebook graphic puts it, "Maybe it's not about the happy ending. Maybe it's about the story."

But also notice that in context, this is not a show-off song. He's not bragging. He's alone at night in a courtyard, keeping vigil in honor of His Lady. This song is a prayer to give him strength. Not accomplishment, strength.

He sings:
This is my quest,
To follow that star --
No matter how hopeless,
No matter how far.
To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause.

The point is you have to attempt what you cannot achieve, to be the best you can be. The dream that carries you the furthest is the impossible dream.

What's in it for us? Well, for Quixote...
And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest.

The payoff is the peace and joy that comes from knowing you've contributed to the world, that you have filled the world with your passion and commitment. As someone who makes art for our community, I really understand those lines. As John Adams says in 1776, there are only two creatures of value, those with a commitment and those that require that commitment of others. Sounds like what we do.

And the song ends with a more universal perspective. Living life this way is not just good for each of us personally, but also for everyone around us. The world is a better place when we strive for greatness, partly for its own sake and partly because it inspires that same striving in others.

Believe me, I know.

That insistent pounding bolero beat in the accompaniment is a reminder that this is not a song about romance, fantasy, or love. This music is driving. This is a serious song about the serious endeavor of giving yourself over to the service and good of others.

WIth all this richness, complexity, humility, spirituality, who could cheapen this beautiful song by going for a loud, high "money note" at the end. That short-circuits everything this song is trying to do. "Money notes" are, by definition, not humble.
And the world will be better for this,
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.

The world will be better because of this man. Isn't that what we all want? The next time you hear this song, listen to it. It has so much to teach us.

Long Live the Musical!

Order Before Midnight Tonight!

I'm lucky to be pretty equally both right- and left-brained, so I'm roughly equally good at both running New Line and creating art for New Line. (Now I just have to learn how to find and develop bigger donors...)

One thing I've always been both fascinated and baffled by, is arts marketing, how we market differently from for-profit companies, and also what we do the same. One lesson I learned stands out among the rest.

It was quite a few years ago. I was late-nite channel surfing, and being a political junkie, I had to stop by C-SPAN. To my great delight, I discovered a program that blew my mind wide open.

American University holds an annual two-week Campaign Management Institute, "to train political activists and campaign managers for participation in local, state and federal political campaigns. Designed and taught by strategists from the Republican and Democratic parties, national campaign consultants, and political scientists, The Institute covers campaign techniques, strategy, and tactics with emphasis on recent technological developments." And the classes are all broadcast on C-SPAN.

I happened upon the the broadcast of a class on marketing and advertising, and I learned an amazing lesson. The speaker talked about a particular commercial that had been running at the time, to illustrate how and why a good marketing campaign works.

In the commercial, a woman who's obviously an executive is getting ready for work, and for an important meeting, while her two little girls are begging to go to the beach. It seems pretty clear this is a single working mom. Finally, she realizes she can take her kids to the beach and participate in her meeting – by cell phone.

So this guy giving the class explains that when cell phones were first becoming popular, men bought them more than women, so this commercial was intended to boost sales to women. And then he "decoded" the commercial, charting the implications of the images, and he blew my mind:

Product Attribute
Result of that Attribute
The Personal Consequence of that Result
The Value to the Customer of that Personal Consequence.

So first the commercial presents a problem: this woman can't be both a good employee and a good mother. Then it presents a solution to the problem in one particular attribute of cell phones: mobility. The result of that mobility is that this woman's cell phone allows her to be both a good employee and a good mother, and it solves her dilemma. And then we see the consequence of that attribute: she can take her girls to the beach and still be at her meeting. So what's the clear value to this woman? If she gets a cell phone, she'll be a better mother and her children will be happier.

Sure, it's a bit simplistic but it's also essentially true. You never want to lie to your customer.

So many of the commercials I see follow this formula, and I started thinking about what I could learn from that for selling New Line tickets.

Following the formula, what is our product, what is one great feature of our product, and what benefits does that feature provide you? Of course the problem I encounter right away is that we're selling an abstract product, an ephemeral experience. How do I translate the cell phone commercial into an approach for us to take?

Our product is the communal experience of storytelling. An attribute of storytelling is human truths. The consequence of that attribute is greater understanding of yourself and the world around you. And the value to you of that consequence is... well... you have a greater understanding of yourself and the world around you...

All that sounds great, but when someone's trying to decide what to do on a Saturday night, deeper understanding of Life might not trump a great blockbuster action movie or a great rock band.

We can't forget the attribute of the communal experience of being part of a live theatre audience. And the result of that attribute is powerful human connection. So what's the consequence and value of that? Well again, that's something people want, but it's not something most people want consciously or even think about.

Working moms know they want to be better mothers. That's much easier to sell.

I'm convinced that one of the reasons people wanted to see Heathers and why everyone enjoyed it so much, is that this show is about one of the central issues plaguing our culture right now. We were able to "work through" this impossible, chronic social problem over the course of our show, to find greater understanding, to recognize our own culpability and responsibility. But most people didn't say, "Let's go see Heathers. I hear it's really relevant." They went for the wild ride and got greater understanding probably without even knowing it.

People are rarely conscious of how and why they need stories, but they do need them. So how do you market to that need...?

I still grapple with this. But this did teach me a side lesson too. I used to write press releases and text for our website all about how important our next show was, how historically significant, etc. And I realized very few people buy a theatre ticket because the show is important. They buy a ticket because they think they'll have a great experience.

So now I try to focus all my marketing text on why you will find the show exciting, not why I do. And I also realized I have to embrace the fact that we sell an experience, not a thing. You can't take our product home with you, except in your memory.

And I'm still working through the exercise from that C-SPAN program. You can watch the program on the C-SPAN website.

I'll keep you posted.

Long Live the Musical!

Life is What You Do

I discovered the cast recording of Zorba in college and have been in love with it ever since. But I honestly never thought I would ever even see it onstage, much less get to work on it. Every time I mentioned it to my musical theatre friends, at least one person would say, "It's so depressing!"

Well, it's not. In fact, it's the opposite of depressing; sure, it's dark, but it's genuinely life-affirming.

Now maybe in clumsy directors' or actors' hands this story can get bogged down in the darkness and miss all the light. But as written, as conceived, it is not depressing. And our audiences during the first half of our run confirm that every night. The word I hear most after performances is "wonderful." People are really overwhelmed at the fun and the powerful emotions of this show.

As usual, our reviews have been incredibly positive. Here's just a taste of what the critics have said...

"Filled with passion and genuine exuberance." – Tina Farmer, KDHX

"A real revelation… a genuine must see.” – Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld

"Another home run for New Line." – Kevin Brackett, ReviewSTL

“A lived-in marvel of beauty and honesty.” – Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times

"Intriguing and intoxicating. . . Zorba the musical will lift your spirits with its wisdom and its zest and make you appreciate what you have all the more." – Mark Bretz, Ladue News

Not bad, huh?

Though oddly, a couple reviews have complained that there's not much plot, that it's just a series of episodes. But that's only true if you think Zorba is the protagonist. He's not. Nikos is the protagonist, the one who learns and grows and changes. Zorba is a Wise Wizard figure, like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Jiminy Cricket.

If you understand that Nikos is our hero, then it's a very straight, linear path from incident to incident, as Nikos learns something from each episode, each encounter, and slowly accesses more and more of his emotions and his "animal" nature, leading to his eventual enlightenment. He follows a classic hero myth trajectory.

I wish reviewers would learn to admit they don't understand a show rather than blaming the show for their shortcomings...

It has been a massive privilege to work on this beautiful show, to unlock its complexities and ambiguities, to lead this smart, insightful, talented, fearless cast.

This whole cast is really, really strong, but I have to give a special shout-out to Kent Coffel, who is giving an extraordinary, utterly fearless performance in the title role, and the whole damn show rests on his shoulders, so...

But there's one thing that delights me more than the rest. The first lyric of the show, "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die," is pretty intense, and it always draws a few uncomfortable laughs. What kind of musical is this? (They softened that lyric for the 1980s revival, though lyricist Fred Ebb hated the new version.) But when that same line comes back at the end of the show in the short epilogue, suddenly those words don't seem harsh or pessimistic anymore; now, with the whole show as backdrop, with Zorba's unique philosophy underscoring everything, now those words just sound right. I see people nodding at this point every night. Of course that's what life is, and we should celebrate that! Life is just time, and what we do with that time is up to us.

Talk about freedom!

If you haven't seen Zorba yet, come join us this weekend or next. I promise you will love it. The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

That Way Is Just As Good

You know how Facebook puts these "Your Memories on Facebook" posts into your newsfeed? You know, to make it even more addictive...? Today, up pops a post of mine from three years ago today, while we were working on Next to Normal.

And it's uncanny how exactly it describes the central point of Zorba:
"Ordinary happiness depends on happenstance. Joy is that extraordinary happiness that is independent of what happens to us. Good luck can make us happy, but it cannot give us lasting joy. The root of joy is gratefulness. We tend to misunderstand the link between joy and gratefulness. We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy. But the reverse is true: their joy springs from gratefulness. If one has all the good luck in the world, but takes it for granted, it will not give one joy. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it. We hold the key to everlasting joy in our own hands. For it is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful." – David Steindl-Rast

I've been talking about wanting to work on Zorba for years, and so many of my theatre friends would always respond with some variation of, "Ugh, that's so depressing!" But it's not. It's just real.

The point of Zorba, as I see it, is that you must embrace all of life if you want to be truly happy, even the bad times, even the pain and hurt. It's all part of the same tapestry, or as Dustin Hoffman puts it in I Heart Huckabee's, everything is the blanket – "When you get the blanket thing you can relax because everything you could ever want or be you already have and are."

But I realize that's what a lot of musicals – or at least, a lot of New Line musicals – are also about.

In Spelling Bee, Chip sings, "Life is random and unfair. Life is pandemonium." At first hearing, that sounds depressing, but it's not. It's not saying that life is shitty; it's saying the life doesn't take a moral position. Good behavior is not necessarily rewarded and bad behavior is not necessarily punished.

I don't find that depressing; I find it powerfully reassuring. Bad shit happens to everyone. Don't take it personally. God's not mad at you and you are not cursed. If life is random, then by definition, it can't be "fair," which would imply judgment and consequence.

This point is driven home more forcibly later in Spelling Bee, when Marcy is visited by Jesus...
MARCY: Jesus… I was wondering what would happen if I didn’t win today.
JESUS: What do you think would happen?
MARCY: I don’t know, but what I mean is, would you be disappointed with me if I lost?
JESUS: Of course not. But Marcy, I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win.
MARCY: You’re saying it’s up to me then?
JESUS: Yes, and also, this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.

Personally, sinner that I am, I take great comfort in a universe that isn't assessing my worth and doling out commensurate amounts of fortune and failure, a universe that places me on an even plane with everybody else, no matter what the Holy Books say.

Passing Strange arrives at a similar conclusion in itss final song...
'Cause the Real is a construct.
It's the raw nerve's private zone.
It's a personal sunset,
You drive off into alone.

There are no cosmic scales of justice. We each have our own road, our own "Real," and each of our roads is littered with good shit and bad shit, in random amounts, placed at random intervals. That's not something to bemoan; it's something to celebrate.

Life is a fucking adventure. That's what Zorba thinks. Or as Mame puts it, "Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death."

But if life is an adventure, if it's random, if everybody's road is different, that means that the idea of universal morality is up for grabs. Your Real isn't my Real. You don't get to judge how I live, and vice versa.

One of the hardest aspects of our story for Kent, who plays Zorba, is this lack of recognizable morality. Zorba is a great guy, fun to be with, full of wise if cockeyed philosophy, and chock full of joy; and Kent found that part of Zorba easily.

But Zorba is also a dick, and that part is proving harder for Kent. I think it's partly because Kent is a really decent, good guy, and being a dick doesn't come that easily to him. (He got a little practice in the fall as Potemkin in Celebration.) I think it's also because as much as Zorba often feels like musical comedy, it's much deeper and more complicated than that.

Everything about Zorba is gray area – except for his joy, which is always full throttle. He makes Hortense very happy but he also treats her very badly. He teaches Nikos a great deal about living a good life, but he also essentially steals a lot of Nikos' money by spending it on women and drink. He's not a patient man. He's not subtle. He's usually not nobly motivated, though it does happen occasionally...

Zorba's morality is about appetite. He follows his road wherever it takes him, and along the way, he consumes life, women, drink, food, dance. To use a relatively recent phrase, he knows how to Live Out Loud.

He does have a kind of reverence for women, but it's a skewed, misogynistic kind of reverence, as Zorba explains in one passage in the novel:
A woman is a refreshing spring. You bend over it, see your face reflected in the water, drink – you drink, and your bones grate. Afterward comes someone else who thirsts. He bends over in his turn, sees his face reflected, and drinks. After that, still another comes. That's what it means to be a spring, what it means to be a woman.

Women are to be consumed. And then passed along.

What do you do with a character like that? In a lot of ways, he acts like an antagonist to our protagonist Nikos, but Zorba is really a deliciously fucked-up version of the Wise Wizard, a character like Ben Kenobi, Glinda the Good Witch, Jiminy Cricket, or Angel in Rent.

Maybe that's why the Zorba the Greek film and novel are so beloved.

Maybe the point of all this is that Zorba is Life. He is Life Force incarnate. And part of that Life Force is Death. But Death is neither good nor bad, it simply is. You wouldn't label gravity or electricity as morally good or bad; they simply exist. Only the uses to which humans put them can be good or bad.

And this all connects back to my greatest revelation about this extraordinary show, which I talked about in my first Zorba post:
What I realized at that point was the subtle, stunning brilliance of calling the opening song "Life Is." It's not an unfinished phrase, which is what it seems on the surface. After all, the title is not "Life Is..." No, the point of the title – and the song and the entire show – is that Life just is. Or in my own lingo, "It is what it is." No use trying to change it or rage against it. Life is good and bad and beautiful and ugly and tender and rough and everything else; and the only way to fully love life is to accept all of it. The only way to be truly happy is to love all of life. Even when people leave us, even when they die.

So many musicals are about this idea of yin and yang... Pippin, Company, Celebration, Rent, Hands on a Hardbody, High Fidelity, Hedwig.... I could keep going...

This is what I'm talking about when I say that New Line does "adult musical theatre." It's theatre about the adult world, not always family-friendly, not always reassuring – because that's not the world.

One thing I can promise you: Joy. As Zorba sings:
I have nothing.
I want nothing.
I am free.

I need nothing.
I owe nothing.
I am free.

If my feet say, come this way,
I probably would.
But if they say, go that way,
That way is just as good.

I ask nothing.
I judge nothing.
I am free.

There's one Zorba,
And that Zorba,
I must be.

Heaven waits for other men,
But not for me.
I fear nothing!
I hope for nothing!
I am free!

Zorba isn't piling up good deeds to get a seat in Heaven; he's too busy living. Whether or not you agree with his philosophy, you will come out of our show feeling a little better about the world, and a little more zen about these crazy times in which we find ourselves. Zorba is the tonic we all need.

The adventure continues. We've almost blocked the whole show and we move into the theatre in a week! Woohoo!

Long Live the Musical!


Have you ever wondered about the Meaning of Life? If not, you need to smoke more pot. If you have, we've got a musical just for you.

In November 1968, Zorba premiered on Broadway with a score by the Cabaret team, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, choreographer Ron Field, and director Hal Prince; plus the bookwriter of Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph Stein. It was based on the popular 1946 novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, as well as letters the team found from the real-life Zorba. A successful film version had been made in 1964 starring Anthony Quinn, but the musical returned to the novel for inspiration, and the end product was very different from the film.

The show opens in a bouzouki parlor where a group has gathered to drink and tell stories. They tell the story of Zorba, his philosophy of living life to the fullest, and a dramatic, emotional, tragic, but life affirming encounter with a younger man and with love.

Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times, "From beginning to end this is a musical with exquisite style and finesse. Prince calculates his efforts like a Mozart. He has learned the principle of the musical as a gesamtumskwerk, the Wagnerian ideal of theatrical unity where every part plays its role in the whole."

So what is this brilliant, rarely produced show all about?

On the surface, Zorba is a wild mix of sex comedy, romantic tragedy, social commentary, and philosophical debate. All in one. Along with some amazing Kander & Ebb songs. I've been telling people that Zorba is very much like their other shows Cabaret and Chicago, except Zorba really isn't cynical, while the other two are almost entirely cynical.

Years ago, I was listening to the Zorba cast album and had a huge revelation. The show's opening song is called "Life Is," in which a bunch of villagers in a bouzouki parlor in Greece debate the meaning of life. It starts with dialogue that segues into singing:
Manolako: So, what should we do now?

Fivos: Want me to sing? Anybody here want me to sing?

Crowd: No!

Konstandi: Shut up!

Manolako: How about a story? Hey, let's tell them a story…

Sofia: What story?

Manolako: The Zorba story…

Marina: Zorba! That's an old story!

Manolako: Old? 40-50 years! Old?

Mordoni: What's it about?

Manolako: What's it about? What's any story about? It's about life.

Konstandi: Just life?

Manolako: That's right. Life. Love and hate and joy and anger and death.

Konstandi: I had to ask.

Manolako: And sadness and happiness. Life.

Fivos: That's right. You know what life is? (He sings:) Life is a glass of rum.

Manolako: No! Life is a sip of sage.

Zorba: No! Life is the taste of raki flowing warmly from the cup.

Despo: Shut up! Life is a walnut leaf.

Hortense: No! Life is an olive tree.

Mordoni: No! Life is a scented, melon breasted woman, when her lips are red and full.

Fivos: Bull! Life is a pomegranate orchard and two lovers passing by it.

Konstandi: Life is my fist in your face if you don't keep quiet!

Fivos: What did you say?

Konstandi: I said, life is my fist in your face if you don't keep quiet!

What I realized at that point was the subtle, stunning brilliance of calling the song "Life Is." It's not an unfinished phrase, which is what it seems on the surface. After all, the title is not "Life Is..." No, the point of the title – and the song and the entire show – is that Life just is. Or in my own lingo, "It is what it is." No use trying to change it or rage against it. Life is good and bad and beautiful and ugly and tender and rough and everything else; and the only way to fully love life is to accept all of it. The only way to be truly happy is to love all of life. Even when people leave us, even when they die.

That's the secret to happiness that Zorba knows and Nikos must learn.

Or, as our Leader then sings:
Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,
Life is how the time goes by...
Life is where you wait while you're waiting to leave,
Life is where you grin and grieve…
Having if you’re lucky,
Wanting if you’re not,
Looking for the ruby
Underneath the rot,
Hungry for the pilaf
In someone else's pot,
But that's the only choice you've got!

Life is where you stand just before you are flat,
Life is only that, mister,
Life is simply that, mister,
That and nothing more than that!

Life is what you feel
Till you can't feel at all,
Life is where you fly and fall…
Running for the shelter,
Naked in the snow,
Learning that a tear drops
Anywhere you go,
Finding it's the mud
That makes the roses grow,
But that's the only choice you know!

Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,
Life is how the time goes by...

Lots of people have told me they think Zorba is depressing, but they're missing the point of the show, and they're not listening to the opening number. That's not depressing; it's aware. When Anthony Quinn revived (and emasculated) the show in the 1980s, they changed the Leader's first line to, "Life is what you do till the moment you die." A kinder, gentler Zorba. Fuck that shit. Zorba isn't about the fear of making the audience sad: it's about the embrace of the adventure of living.

I had another revelation about this same song in music rehearsal the other night. This opening is brilliant not only in its content, but also in its form. As we all know from Stephen Sondheim (all praise be unto him) that in the best musicals, content dictates form.

What I realized is that "Life Is" is a debate, an argument; and so is the rest of the show. This story, though so funny and emotional on the surface is as much a philosophical debate as it is a romantic comedy-drama. Throughout the entire show (and the entire novel), Zorba is teaching Nikos just as Socrates once taught Plato, through argument, through story, through parable.

Watch the original Broadway cast in 1969 perform "Life Is" on the Tonys:

According to Wikipedia, the legendary Symposium (upon which is based Hedwig's "The Origin of Love") is "a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC. It concerns itself at one level with the genesis, purpose and nature of love, and (in latter-day interpretations) is the origin of the concept of Platonic love. Love is examined in a sequence of speeches by men attending a symposium, or drinking party. Each man must deliver an encomium, a speech in praise of Love. The party takes place at the house of the tragedian Agathon in Athens. Socrates in his speech asserts that the highest purpose of love is to become a philosopher or, literally, a lover of wisdom. Commonly regarded as one of Plato's major works, the dialogue has been used as a source by social historians seeking to throw light on life in ancient Athens – in particular, upon human sexuality and the symposium as an institution."

That sounds an awful lot like Zorba and Zorba. And a lot like "Life Is"...

Don't get me wrong, Zorba tells a straight-forward, linear story, but as with most Kander & Ebb shows, there's a whole lot more going on. Zorba achieves what Bob Fosse once called "Poetry, Popcorn, and Politics," or in other words, artistic beauty, pure diversion, and important issues, all in one.

It's really an extraordinary show, as emotional and cerebral as it is rowdy and vulgar, and populated by a bunch of wonderful characters that you're really not going to want to leave at the end of the show.

I cannot wait to share this with our audiences. You are going to love it.

Long Live the Musical!

The Zombies of Penzance

A few days ago I sent out a press release...



ST. LOUIS, MO . . . New Line Theatre, "the bad boy of musical theatre," has shocked the music world by discovering a long-lost first draft by the legendary British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, who together wrote fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896.

One of the team's best known works, The Pirates of Penzance, originally debuted in New York in 1879, and was revived to great success in the early 1980s with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. What we now know is that there was an earlier, stranger draft of the show, which nobody knew about until now, with most of the same characters but a somewhat different plot.

In Gilbert & Sullivan's never-before seen original draft, titled The Zombies of Penzance (with the unwieldy subtitle, At Night Come the Flesh Eaters), Major-General Stanley is a retired zombie hunter, who doesn't want his daughters marrying the dreaded Zombies of Penzance (for obvious reasons). According to documents found with the manuscripts, Gilbert and Sullivan finished work on The Zombies of Penzance in mid-1878, but their producer Richard D’Oyly-Carte refused to produce it, calling it vulgar, impolitic, and unchristian, and in one letter, "an operatic abomination, an obscene foray into the darkest of the occult arts." In a letter to his cousin, Gilbert expressed his deep disappointment, writing "I fear the walking dead shall be the end of me yet."

Until now, music scholars had been baffled by that reference.

After a battle that almost ended the partnership, the team reluctantly agreed to rewrite their show, and in 1879, D'Oyly-Carte debuted the much more conventional, revised version, The Pirates of Penzance, which added the characters of Ruth and the policemen, and eliminated all references to zombism.

In 2013, New Line artistic director Scott Miller discovered the original manuscripts for The Zombies of Penzance in the second sub-basement of the Judson Memorial Church in New York, hidden beneath some moldy band parts from Rockabye Hamlet and Shogun the Musical, and Miller set about reconstructing the bizarre original show as G&S intended.

Gilbert's walking dead and their Zombie King now make their long-delayed world premiere. Miller has painstakingly reassembled these rediscovered materials into their original form, filling in the gaps with educated guesses based on other G&S shows and drafts. St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes is reconstructing Sullivan's music.

Now, for the first time, audiences will be able to see and hear the comic, flesh-eating insanity Gilbert & Sullivan originally wrought. New Line will host a public reading of The Zombies of Penzance in January 2018, and then produce the show fully in October 2018, to open New Line's 28th season.

I got a call from Judy Newmark at the Post-Dispatch, laughing and saying, "I don't know what to do with this press release!" She finally just printed it in its entirety.

So whence came all this madness...?

I actually got the idea back in 2012. I can't remember exactly what inspired me, but I know I saw the movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer, and I had heard about books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Also, I've been thinking for a while about trying an adaptation. I've written nine musicals, and eight of them were original stories; the other was based on an actual news story. I thought it would be interesting to try adaptation, but nothing had really grabbed me.

Until The Zombies of Penzance popped into my fevered artsy brain.

I've been in love with The Pirates of Penzance ever since my first trip to New York, when I saw the show with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, George Rose, et al. It was so amazing, rowdy, silly, wild, satirical, political, everything I've ever wanted in my musicals.

I decided if I was going to try this, I should start with the legendary patter song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." I figured if I could write a new lyric to that song, I could handle the rest of the show. It took me a couple days, but I got it done. It is now "I Am the Very Model of a Modern-Era Zombie Killer."

And then slowly I started working on the rest of the show. Sometimes it would sit untouched on my computer for months at a time, but every once in a while, I'd sit down and work through a little more of it. I had to make some big decisions, like cutting Ruth and the Police, but the contours of the story remain the same – which was part of the fun of writing it for me.

Finally, early last year, I decided I needed to finish this thing. So I did. Then I called John Gerdes who had orchestrated and conducted my own show Attempting the Absurd, New Line's second show, back in 1992. Gerdes loved the idea and signed on to adapt and re-orchestrate the music.

The plan is to go into rehearsal right after our fall show, Lizzie, to learn the Zombies score, then present a public reading in January, so we can see how it plays in front of an audience, and if there are any glaring problems. Then we'll go into rehearsal for the full production in August 2018, and run the show four weeks in October.

I've had so much fun working on this, and I think people will have a blast with it. The reaction so far to our announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. I think zombie fans will love it, and I think diehard G&S fans will too.

Yet another adventure begins...!

Long Live the Musical!

The 7 Lively Arts

So I've been reading this wonderful book, The 7 Lively Arts, written in 1924 by writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes, who "spent his career analyzing popular culture in America, advocating cultural democracy, and subsequently, calling for public criticism of the media," according to Wikipedia.

Amazon describes his books as, "Intelligent, engaging discussions of slapstick, comic strips, vaudeville, and other elements of popular culture and their relationship to such traditional art forms as opera, ballet, drama, and classical music. Tributes to Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and a host of other celebrities."

Doesn't that sound like fun?

The book appeared on my radar because in 1944 Billy Rose put together a revue (pretending to be a book musical) called The 7 Lively Arts, for which Cole Porter wrote the score, loosely based on the book.

So what are The 7 Lively Arts? Seldes was really just talking about pop culture, as opposed to "the fine arts." He even tells us at the beginning of the book that there aren't really seven. More than anything, the book was a declaration of cultural war against those who would try to make the arts elitist. Art should be for everyone.

But that leads to something even thornier... what is art? Will we ever stop asking that question? Will we ever really agree on an answer? No and No.

According to Wikipedia, "art is a documented expression of a sentient being through or on an accessible medium so that anyone can view, hear or experience it." It also says, "Traditionally, the arts are classified as seven: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, dance, theater/cinema, with the modern additions of photography and comics."

It's not an easy or straight-forward question. I found this great webpage of quotes from famous people about what art is. Here are a few samples:
“The making of a work of art is a strange and risky business in which the maker never knows quite what he is making until he makes it.” – R.G. Collingwood

“Art is either a plagiarist or a revolutionary.” – Paul Gauguin

“Art is harmony.” – Georges Seurat

“To me the thing that art does for life is to clean it – to strip it to form.” – Robert Frost

“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” – Paul Klee

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” – Pablo Picasso

“To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this – and only this – is to be an artist.” – Jacques-Louis David

“Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.” – Saul Bellow

“Art is a habit-forming drug.” – Marcel Duchamp

“Life is short, art is long.” – Hippocrates

“Art is a revolt, a protest against extinction.” – AndrĂ© Malraux

“If one general statement can be made about the art of our times, it is that one by one the old criteria of what a work of art ought to be have been discarded in favor of a dynamic approach in which everything is possible.” – Peter Selz

How about some more definitions that might help... these from Wikipedia:
"Fine Art" = "Creative art, especially visual art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content."

"Pop Art" = "The art of popular culture. It was the visual art movement that characterised a sense of optimism during the post war consumer boom of the 1950s and 1960s. It coincided with the globalization of pop music and youth culture, personified by Elvis and the Beatles. Pop Art was brash, young and fun and hostile to the artistic establishment. It included different styles of painting and sculpture from various countries, but what they all had in common was an interest in mass-media, mass-production and mass-culture."

"Pop Culture" = "The entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century."

And just as America is a country made up of people from every other country on earth, so too the American musical theatre is an art form made up of all the other art forms: Storytelling/Literature, Poetry, Music, Dance, Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting. It is the most collaborative of all forms, by a country mile. Which is why it's so difficult, so rewarding, and often so thrilling.

But it's also the reason why so many new musicals go astray...

In its early days, the songs of the musical theatre were the songs of the pop charts. That ended when rock and roll fully took over the culture by the late 1950s. Lots of people have lots of explanation of why theatre music and pop music parted company, but really it's just that the two song forms were on different tracks.

The rock and roll of the 1950s was intentionally simple, accessible, "catchy." That's also what early theatre songs were like, in the 1900s and 1910s. But theatre songs had advanced beyond that by the time the culture turned to the new sound of rock. Theatre songs had too little repetition and too much information for the pop market at that moment; and rock songs had too much repetition and too little information to work in the mid-century musical theatre which had been transformed by Rodgers & Hammerstein.

Finally, in the 1990s, due mostly to Rent, but also Hedwig and other shows, theatre music and pop music began to converge again, as rock music evolved and diversified, and as rock became the default musical language of 21st century musical theatre.

And it's about damn time!

We artsies like to talk about What is Art? but nobody has a definitive answer. The more I've thought about it over the years, the more I've come to the conclusion that art at its core is just about an artist communicating something of value (usually a story) to an audience. No audience? Not art. Nothing of value to communicate? Not art. And so what is an artist? Well, I know this is circular, but an artist is someone who communicates something of value to an audience. Who decides what is "of value"? Ah, that's the tricky part. We each do.

Not all art is good. Not all art is important. But all art communicates, and if it doesn't, it's not art. That's what I think, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

We start rehearsals for Zorba in a week! I can't wait!

Long Live the Musical!

'Twas a Year Full of New Line 2016

'Twas a year full of New Line, another turned page,
As real world insanities came to our stage,
All proving the personal's also political,
Micro- and often macro- hypocritical.
Raging against the machine and the zeitgeist,
Exploring the people who practice and fight vice,
While bringing you quality art that is right-priced.

A primal scream over a country so shitty, it
Begged a response in American Idiot,
Brilliant, surreal, an uncomfortable story
Of moral descent and of horrors so gory;
A loud and insistent refusal to bend
To the whims and delusions our "leaders" defend;
A story that still hasn't played out its end...

A largely unknown mini lesson in civics:
Atomic, a story of nuclear physics,
Of building The Bomb, of its power, its use,
Of its moral and its bureaucratic abuse;
The questions that keep us awake in the night,
The choices in which neither choice can be right,
A plea that we someday just might see the light...

And then came a one-act, an evening much shorter,
With one lonely actor, the great Sarah Porter,
In Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me on a Sunday,
A show I had often thought we should do one day;
A harrowing, truthful, emotion-packed chase
Through the loves of a woman who can't find her place,
Who eventually learns how to muddle with grace...

Then a ritual, musical, Sixties experiment,
Called Celebration, of New Year's Eve merriment;
Penned by the same guys who wrote The Fantasticks,
All chock-full of moral and verbal gymnastics,
A dildo, confetti, a near-naked gal; we
Know not all our shows are up everyone's alley
(And nobody understood that damn finale).

I'm proud of our work, of our art and our service
(Although New Line's bank account makes me so nervous).
I'm proud that the "Bad Boy" maintains his sharp edge;
New Line promised you fearless and we've kept that pledge.
We thank you, St. Louis, for seeing we're right,
That serious musical theatre's light
Is in showing us us in the darkest of night.

Happy Holidays! Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you want, also check out my 2013, 2014, and 2015 year-end poems...

10 Reasons Project Runway Is Like Musical Theatre

I have a confession to make.

Mock me all you want, but I haven't missed an episode of Project Runway in ten years or more. In my defense, it's the only reality show I watch.

But I realized years ago that at its core, Project Runway is really just a show about making art, a different kind of art from mine, sure, but still art. Many of the same rules, fears, uncertainty, and panic applies. The show also addresses on a weekly basis the age-old tension between art and commerce.

In a surprising way (or maybe not), the process we witness over the course of a Project Runway season is parallel to the music theory classes I took in college. A series of exercises in which we learned to write music to other people's very narrow constraints and very strict rules. The idea was to write good music without breaking the "rules." Music theory homework was often very frustrating for me, because at that point I had already written three musicals without those limitations.

But my second year theory professor put it in perspective for me. His name was Peter Lieberson, one of the best teachers I ever had, son of Goddard Lieberson (RCA record producer of many legendary cast albums in the 1940s and 50s), and Vera Zorina (Balanchine ballerina and Broadway musical comedy star). Peter grew up siting in on the recording sessions for the My Fair Lady and Camelot cast albums. Holy. Shit.

He told me that music theory had an important purpose, but not exactly what They told us. As with any art, it's always better to know the rules and know that you are breaking them, and why, than to blindly break them out of ignorance. The rules are there for a reason. And -- here was the mind-blower -- music theory isn't really "rules," as much as a description of how Bach wrote his chorales. Yes, that's a bit of an over-simplification, but not much. We study those chorales because they're amazing, and it's worth learning what "rules" -- or maybe habits is the better word -- make Bach's music so good.

On the other hand, if I'm writing a score for a musical and I want to break those "rules," there's nothing stopping me. If it sounds good, I'll do it.

On the other hand, knowing music theory helps me in two ways. First, it allows the music I write to get more complex, which is more interesting, because it gives me a bigger musical vocabulary. I noticed that once I started studying theory, my music suddenly acquired more sharps and flats. That meant my music was moving outside the key now and then, and again, that's interesting.

Theory also helps me when I get stuck, like iambic pentameter in Shakespeare. Music theory (voice leading, chord theory, counterpoint, all that) is usually way at the back of my mind, but when I have to reduce a vocal arrangement for eight down to five, that music theory comes in mighty handy. I know what function each note plays in the chord, what we can do without, and what is necessary. Likewise, when I'm writing, sometimes my song will wander from the original key -- in a really interesting way -- but if I want to repeat the first section, without moving the voice drastically, I have to find a way to modulate back to the original key. Music theory gives me the toolbox to figure out a chord progression that gets me back where I started.

I think Project Runway does the same for those designers, and for everybody watching. It's a master class that happens to get great ratings. Without most of the usual reality show bullshit.

Project Runway also reminds me of my hero Hal Prince's rule while he was actively producing, that the morning after every opening night, he had the first meeting for the next show.

And the world goes 'round and 'round and 'round...

As you can see, I'm a big fan of this show. So here are my ten lessons Project Runway teaches us that also apply to New Line's work...

1. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the artist thinks; only what the audience thinks. Art is communication. That's why Sondheim says the only legit measure of a show's success is whether or not it is clear to the audience.

2. It always comes down to telling a story (like almost everything else in life). How often do Tim and the judges ask, "Who is your customer? Who is this woman?" It's like Obama's 2008 campaign staff kept saying, "Just tell the story."

3. You have to balance other people's input/reactions against your own gut and instincts. That's usually not easy.

4. Almost always, pushing it further is a good idea. And yet at the same time, you always have to get rid of anything that doesn't have to be there. A tough balancing act.

5. The tighter the limitations, the greater the creative output will be. It's the same reason lyrics are often better if they're written to existing music, and forced to conform to rhythms and phrasing.

6. If it comes down to a conflict between what you want and what the piece of art "wants," the piece of art wins. I've cut some great songs from shows I've written, because despite how good they were, the story and/or pacing did not want them there.

7. You have to know when to change roads. How often do we see a designer on Project Runway start over, in an entirely new direction? Luckily, New Line's relatively leisurely rehearsal schedule allows the same thing.

8. You have to leave it all on the field. In other words, give it everything every time. I often tell our casts that if they're not utterly drained by the end of a performance, they're not doing it right.

9. "Art is never finished, only abandoned," as DaVinci said. So. Fucking. True. I kind of like that theatre has a "deadline." You create the best show you can by the time the audience gets there. But it never seems like there's enough time to "finish." I'm well known for responding to small problems during Hell Week with a smile and, "Well, it is what it is." You can't solve every problem, perfect every moment, find all the answers. There's always a clock ticking. You do what you can do. And that's okay.

10. Art is art. Fashion art, theatre art, musical art, movement art, studio art, it's all pretty much the same at the core.

And that's why I watch Project Runway. Thank you, Tim and Heidi.

Long Live the Musical!

25 Musicals That Are Darker Than You Think

Sometimes people tell me – apologetically, but not really – that they don't really like "the new musicals." They like Rodgers & Hammerstein because they "just want escape." You know, like the "escape" of World War II in the Pacific, or the "escape" of watching the King of Siam lose his culture and then his life, or the "escape" of watching Jud Fry buy pornography from Ali Hakim, then try to murder Curly and Laurie, then die in a knife fight...

Escape is awesome.

But it's not just Rodgers & Hammerstein. Jerry Herman's shows are just as dark. Hello, Dolly! is about an aging widow so desperate to remarry she'll lie, cheat, and manipulate to get what she wants And she does.

So I thought, wouldn't it be fun to take a new look at musicals that people love and expose their stories for what they really are.

Por ejemplo...

The Music Man is about a con artist who tries to cheat a town full of honest, hard-working people, using their kids as bait, until he gets caught thinking with his dick.

Carousel is about a serial womanizer and abuser, and petty repeat offender, who dies in the commission of a violent crime and leaves behind a wife with PTSD and a fucked-up daughter who tries to find validation in the arms of other men.

Man of La Mancha is about a psychotic old man – or in a more charitable interpretation, an old man with Alzheimer's – who surrounds himself with enablers and repeatedly places them in danger with his delusions.

Mame is about a nonconformist who is repeatedly forced to conform.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is about a bunch of kids who are drowning in a sea of moral relativism and bullying.

Avenue Q is about a bunch of whiny millennials who over-share.

Pippin is about a whiny college grad who moves back home until he can find his dream job, which he never finds...

Wicked is about two sisters from a dysfunctional home who take incompatible paths.

Anything Goes is about the debasing of religion by turning it into show biz, and the American habit of treating violent criminals as cherished celebrities.

Annie Get Your Gun is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

Kiss Me, Kate is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

Guys and Dolls is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

No, No, Nanette is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

My Fair Lady is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men. Or to be more specific, My Fair Lady is about a narcissistic misogynist who keeps a young woman hostage in his apartment, using psychological torture to break her will and brainwash her, in order to make her socially acceptable.

Camelot is about the attempted burning-at-the-stake of a strong woman by an insecure man, for the crime of being sexually active.

Beauty and the Beast is about a young woman with Stockholm Syndrome, imprisoned by an insecure monster.

The Sound of Music is about a damaged young woman who falls for an angry, abusive, distant daddy figure.

Once Upon a Mattress is about how women have to be twice as good as men to get the same job.

Bye Bye Birdie is about the danger of commercializing teenage sexuality.

42nd Street is about labor abuses in New York theatre before labor unions.

The Drowsy Chaperone is about a lonely old man who has nothing left but memories and friends that aren't real.

Tell Me on a Sunday (Song and Dance) is about a woman who has learned to define herself only in terms of the men in her life.

Maybe my hidden agenda behind this exercise is to restate one of my central themes – audiences do not go to theatre (or movies) for escape; they go for connection. To quote my own recent post:
I think this fundamental lack of understanding is connected to the idea that audiences want "escape." That's not true. If it were, New Line would have gone out of business years ago. Humans tell stories for a really specific set of reasons, and none of those are escape. We want connection, not disconnection. From the seemingly most mindless zombie movies to King Lear, storytelling is fundamental to human existence and survival. We go see romantic comedy movies not to escape our lives, but to be reminded that we all face the same emotions, obstacles, setbacks, fears, etc. Seeing others confront and tackle the obstacles of life (even on Tatooine) helps us in our own lives. Seeing others find love keeps alive our hope that we can find love. . . We do ourselves a disservice when we consider what we do anything less than important, when we give our audiences anything less than what they deserve, when we think of our work as "just" entertainment or "just" escapism. We are the storytellers. We are the shamans. We are the light.

It really bothers me when I hear professional theatre artists dismissing what they do as "escape" when I know it's so much more than that. Nobody actually goes to the theatre for escape; whether or not they're conscious of it, they go for connection.

The main point of this game was to have fun, but I think it also reveals a truth that is often ignored. The still widespread perception that musicals are silly and shallow is demonstrably untrue. Even Anything Goes has a considerable dark side in its pointed social criticism.

Which is why we New Liners are talking seriously about producing Anything Goes at some point. It really is a New Line show; it's just that nobody knows that yet...

Long Live the Musical!