You Never Know When, Where, and How

In Sweet Smell of Success, many of the songs have an ironic under-layer; sometimes the singer is aware of the irony, others times they're not.

All through the scene-song "I Could Get You in J.J.," we already know Sidney can't get either of them in J.J.'s column, that in fact Sidney is a two-bit con man. We also already know that Susan has had dinner with J.J., even as Sidney is promising to get her in J.J.'s column.

Dallas' gorgeous ballad "I Cannot Hear the City," is straight-forward the first time we hear it, but when it returns late in Act I, it takes on a double-meaning, also reminding us that Dallas really doesn't understand how the Big City works... as we watch J.J. slowly realize he's being lied to. Dallas is in the big leagues now, and he's really not ready...

I've already blogged a bit about Sidney's big "aria" in Act I, "At the Fountain." It's another brilliant exercise in subtle irony. This big, gorgeous music camouflages the needy, creepy lyric. As I wrote in my other post:
More so than the movie ever does, this helps us understand why Sidney goes along with everything J.J. wants. Sidney is metaphorically at Schwab's soda fountain, and he fancies himself a "star" being "discovered" by J.J. He thinks he's the next Lana Turner. It's ironic that in the earlier scene in the Voodoo Club, Sidney's bullshit agent's pitch to Susan includes the line, "The Voodoo Club could be your Schwab's," but it turns out to be Sidney's Schwab's instead. He thinks.

But also notice, Sidney thinks J.J. looked into his soul and saw greatness. (No, J.J. looked into Sidney's face and saw an easy mark.) Sidney thinks meeting J.J. was Fate. (No, J.J. looked into Sidney's face and saw an easy mark.) The grand, powerful emotion of the music takes us inside Sidney's head. This is how he sees himself.

Dallas' clubby, sexy "One Track Mind" works both as an authentic period jazz number, as Brubecky as the real thing, but this is also Dallas' case for the nobility of impoverished happiness (we're to assume Dallas wrote this song), in stark contrast to the previous scene in which we learned, in waltz time, about the dozens of famous, rich, and powerful people who frequent the Hunsecker penthouse. Notice that J.J.'s music is all old-fashioned -- a hymn, a waltz, a vaudeville number...

Subliminally, the music tells us that J.J.'s penthouse world is old, creepy, oppressive, isolating, while Dallas' world is new, adventurous, romantic. The penthouse is (musically) minor and dissonant, while Dallas' club is major and playful. These are two very distinct worlds that Susan has to choose between. And when J.J. realizes she's made that choice, all hell breaks loose.

Likewise, "Rita's Tune" is a companion piece to "Somewhere That's Green," an ironic charm song about how little this women needs to be happy, all while we know she won't get even that. But "Rita's Tune" is even darker and more ironic. It succeeds brilliantly on three levels at the same time: 1.)  as a great, period pop tune celebrating domesticity; 2.)  as unintentional irony because we already know Sidney's a louse and bad shit is coming; and 3.)  like "Somewhere That's Green," it's such a naked, honest, simple plea, and we know she won't get any of what she needs. She won't get killed, like Audrey, but she'll come damn close.

As the song begins, we either know or suspect that Sidney's about to pimp out his "available" girlfriend, then we watch Rita sing of domestic bliss, and then we actually watch Sidney pimp her out to Otis Elwell, in exchange for getting an item in Otis' column. That's some heavy irony. And then after Sidney leaves, the writers drop one more irony on us, as Rita admits to Otis that yes, he does recognize her because she was pimped out to him two years ago. Holy shit.

Another example of shattering irony is "Don't Look Now," J.J.'s old vaudeville number, which he performs on his telethon.

This lyric is a fictionalized version of the real 1880 vaudeville staple, "The Fountain in the Park" (usually known as "While Strolling Through the Park One Day"). This number serves both as a J.J.'s famous signature song from decades ago, but also as a postmodern song-and-dance that slyly, almost subliminally, describes the danger of New York nightlife. The nostalgic music and choreography work ironically against the deceptively dark lyric, which literally describes the brutality taking place during the song, as Lt. Kello and his thugs beat Dallas unconscious. You just don't notice that's what it's doing...

J.J. starts the song, with a startlingly honest intro:
Magicians always tell you
They've got nothing up their sleeve,
But why would someone tell you that,
Unless it's to deceive?
There's always been a lie
To misdirect the eye,
Since Adam did his magic tricks for Eve.

Here, the song itself is the magic trick -- the music and dance misdirect us from the dark, violent content of the lyric.
Don’t ever trust a gent
Who pulls a bird from someone’s ear,
Who makes his living
Making you believe that he's sincere.
He's looking for a chump,
Expectin’ you to jump,
When he pours on all the charm and says,
“I need a volunteer.”

Underscoring continues as Sidney and Kello arrange the beating of Dallas over the phone. Dallas is the chump, the lyric is telling us, the "volunteer." And J.J. is the guy "who makes his living making you believe that he's sincere." It's both a conventional song and it isn't, at the same time. This is the territory of the neo musical comedy, the new form that uses the conventions of old-school musical comedy for more ironic, more socio-political aims. Sweet Smell of Success is not a neo musical comedy -- it's a thriller -- but this number works on the same principle.

J.J. sings the first verse now, surrounded by a chorus.
Don't look now
But somethin' that you had is gone.
It's somethin' you depend upon.
Don't look now...

Is J.J. talking to Dallas? Or Sidney...? Or is it a warning to the rest of us? Maybe it's the writers reminding us that everyone loses in this story. And in life...
Take a bow;
Someone made a fool of you.
You're standin' there without a clue.
Don't look now...

Again, which of J.J.'s victims is the object of this? Or is it all of J.J.'s victims, and all his victims to come...? Everybody (else) is a patsy...
He took you to the cleaners,
Don't you know.
He walked you like a dog,
The so and so...

Say "bow wow,"
A piece of what you had is gone;
The magic act goes on and on.
You're wonderin' when, where and how?
Well, don't look now.

The magic act -- J.J.'s column and the power it brings with it -- goes on and on. Both the opening and closing numbers tell us that "on and on and on it goes..." The closing also tells us, "There no end to the column..."

There's a short dialogue scene in which Sidney lies to Dallas to get him to the docks, where Kello will beat him up. The chorus continues the song, with a lyric that mixes the benign with the sinister, set to a sweet, swinging, old-fashioned softshoe:
Strolling along the avenue,
Cutting across the park,
Rushing to make a rendezvous,
You could become a mark.
Somehow the magic will find you,
Find you alone in the dark.

You could become the "mark," the sucker, the victim of a con or a crime, alone in the dark. Are Kello and his goons "the magic [that] will find you"...?
Maybe we get to pick our spots,
Maybe we choose the date,
Maybe we get to call the shots,
Maybe it's up to fate.
Somehow the magic will find you,
Find you alone,
Alone in the dark.

Are they talking about dying...?? Is this a threat...?
Don't look now,
But somethin' that you had is gone;
The magic act goes on and on.
You never know when where and how...

Now we start to wonder if "somethin' that you had" is your health or even your life, as Kello and his Goon beat Dallas to the beat of the music, while the chorus continues:
He'll make your bunny disappear
Along with your hat;
He'll saw your girl in half,
And then he'll leave her like that.

What the fuck...?
So don't look…
Don't look…
Don't look now!

Don't look, he says, because if we pay attention, people like J.J. can't get away with nearly as much. The whole script and score are this rich, this complex, this subtle, this beautifully crafted. It's been such a joy working on this show! I love my job!

Long Live the Musical!

Makin' Music to Make You Die

It's hard to write about music without the reader actually hearing it. But I've been doing my best in my books to write about really interesting scores as simply and accessibly as I can, and I'm gonna try to do the same with the sizzling jazz score for Sweet Smell of Success.

One of the things that provides the show's considerable suspense and tension, and that gives it such a relentless pace, is Marvin Hamlisch's remarkable music. As strong as all his scores are, this was his masterpiece, endlessly inventive and deeply expressive, while fully inhabiting the language of 1950s club jazz.

One of the central reasons the show works so well is the underscoring under most of the show. Jazz is part of the environment here; the music provides the story's cultural context as much as it's the language of our storytelling.

Hamlisch embraced the idea of film noir with this score, and his decades of experience scoring films gave him the composing chops to use music so effectively throughout the show. In this story, it's the stopping of the music -- emotional silence -- that provides powerful dramatic punctuation, rather than the other way around.

Like his film music, and like his extensive underscoring in A Chorus Line, the underscoring in this show is expressionistic music, built not so much on melody or harmony, but on the abstract expression of emotion.

He also uses leitmotifs throughout the score, small musical ideas that come to represent an idea or person. J.J. has an ironic vaudeville leitmotif that pops up here and there.

There's also a "column" leitmotif for Sidney, two notes that recur all over the score, two notes that are part of the show's central melody, first set in the opening number to the word "column" in the first line, "Gotta get in the column" (which shows up again in "Dirt"). These two notes come back every time Sidney makes another moral compromise. These two notes also accompany the disturbing, repeating "Do it... Do it... Do it... Do it!", from the Greek Chorus in "Break It Up," this time urging Sidney to pimp out his girlfriend.

In "Break It Up," the first song in Act II, the Greek Chorus goads Sidney into one more immoral act. But more than just a musical Devil on the Shoulder, it's also a deconstruction of Sidney's triumphant, hopeful, Act I "aria," "At the Fountain." "Break It Up" has one new melody, but the rest of this very long musical scene is built on musically tearing apart the optimism of Act I.

Likewise, the reprise of "I Could Get You in J.J." is also a dark deconstruction of the scene-song from Act I, as Sidney conjures up his destructive chaos. Another long musical scene, it's built on the Act I "I Could Get You in J.J.," with a new short leitmotif, "Bye bye, blackbird, bye bye Dallas, Bye bye blues," all peppered with interruptions, fragments, and lots of underscoring.

By design, there's really not a lot of new musical material in Act II. There's the new "Break It Up" music, the short "Bye bye blackbird" fragment, most but not all of "Dirt," and the vaudeville number, "Don't Look Now."

The rest of the music in Act II, and there's a lot of it, is built on the musical ideas established in Act I. Hamlisch takes those ideas, changes them, twists them, adapts them, interrupts them; and in the process he changes the emotional context and colors of those melodies we've already heard.

There are also only three self-contained songs in Act II, "Rita's Tune," the ironically retro torch song; "Dirt," the Greek Chorus' statement of purpose; and "Don't Look Now," J.J.'s old vaudeville number. Although really, "Don't Look Now" is more musical scene than self-contained song, with several ironically offset dialogue scenes with underscoring, inside the song.

It's a shame that they weren't able to make a two-disc cast recording and preserve this entire extraordinary score. Easily a third of the score is not on the recording. Maybe someday they'll "rediscover" this brilliant score and record the whole thing...

Meanwhile, we get to live inside this glorious, sinewy music for another three weeks! Come join us!

Long Live the Musical!

Nothin's as Sweet as the Fall

You don't really notice it when you're watching the show or listening to the cast recording -- at least I didn't -- but bookwriter John Guare and lyricist Craig Carnelia have built an incredibly sophisticated, complex, subtle, artful piece of storytelling with Sweet Smell of Success.

It succeeds in all three of the important categories: Poetry, Popcorn, and Politics; or in other words, artistry, pure entertainment, and substance. It seems a mystery and a shame that it didn't run longer on Broadway, this exquisite film noir musical, from the pens of three top professionals, Guare, Carnelia, and the great Marvin Hamlisch, writing the score of his career (his last theatre score, unless you count The Nutty Professor, which never made it to New York). But honestly, it's another show (like many we've resuscitated) that belonged off Broadway in a more intimate production.

I've already blogged about our show's form, its content, its historical and culture context, and its craftsmanship. But as I'm discovering now that we've opened our production, you never stop discovering new things in this rich, dark material.

One thing I noticed only after we put the whole show together, how Guare and Carnelia have peppered the word sweet throughout the show, often meaning very different things, always underlining the irony of the title (which is never mentioned verbatim, by the way).

In "Break It Up," early in Act II, as all hell is breaking loose, Sidney sings these lines:
Ooo, once you been there,
It's tough to settle for less.
Ooo, I'm so close I can
Smell the smell of success…

And that's when the irony of the title hits us. At this point, the shit Sidney is tangled up in doesn't seem much like success. Even though he can't see it, we can. Which means the "smell" isn't a good one. Which means the word sweet in the title is darkly ironic.

In this world in which almost everyone lies, what value do words have? And in a show in which the word sweet can mean anything, we realize there's no one here to trust, not even our narrators, Sidney and the other press agents as our Greek Chorus.

So here's a quick tour through the sweet in Sweet Smell of Success. You'll notice our two "decent" characters, Susan and Dallas, never use the word.

It first pops up late in Act I. When Sidney successfully cons J.J. into plugging Dallas in his column, J.J. says, “This is the sweet part of this racket -- helping your pals.” Of course, he has no idea he’s actually helping the man who’s going to take his sister away, and that Sidney is actively plotting against J.J. It's one of the few times J.J. is ironic without knowing it.

Later in the same scene, in the song “For Susan,” J.J. sings, “Ever so sweetly the orchestra plays for Susan…” But the subtext of the scene, J.J.'s creepy attraction to his sister, works in opposition to the innocence of the memory. It's a sweet memory for J.J., not so much for Susan.

In “Rita’s Tune,” Sidney's girlfriend, thinking she's about to have a romantic night with Sidney (we already know she's not), sings:
Someone in sweet California
Plucked all these grapes from the vine,
To pop a cork in sweet New York…

Rita is only accidentally ironic here. She means it; she just doesn't know her boyfriend is about to walk in, shatter her, and leave. That's sweet New York.

Immediately following, in “Dirt,” the press agents sing about the celebrities they write about:
Watchin' them rise is a ball,
But nothin's as sweet as the fall…

Yeah, schadenfreude-sweet...

Backstage at the telethon, when J.J. and Sidney are pretending outrage over the lies Sidney himself has planted, J.J. says to Susan, “No worry, sweetheart. You're safe at home.” That's two sweets for Susan. But soon after, J.J. is on the phone bullying the club owner Billy, and J.J. snaps, “Warm up the brain, sweetheart. Insert the truth.” Susan hears this; does that make the word sound different to her now...? It's a word that reminds the listener of the power structure -- the powerless would never call the powerful "sweetheart," only the other way around...

The last time the word sweet appears in the show is when Sidney is arranging for Kello to beat up Dallas, and Kello ends their conversation with, “Very sweet doin' business with you, Sid.” Sweet, as in nothing of the kind.

So how does all this work on us? How does it enhance the storytelling? It tells us, even if just subliminally, that there are no rules in this world, despite the outward appearance of 1950s order. Words mean whatever you want them to mean. Lies and truth are interchangeable. Readership equals power equals Truth.

In 1952, J.J. (and his real-life counterpart Walter Winchell) had a false authority because his column appeared in a daily newspaper, not because of the veracity of his items. Readers generally believed that if it was printed in the paper, it was properly vetted for accuracy and it could be trusted fully. Today we are living through the inverse, when it's incredibly easy to create the appearance of authority online, so that the average reader can't tell the difference between a hack blogger and an experienced, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, between Drudge and Breitbart and Vox.

Truth is secondary, then as now, less important than what's juicy, or in our current lingo, clickbait.

At the top of Act II, when Sidney actually does tell J.J. the truth about meeting Susan, J.J. doesn't believe him. Why should he? The truth has no currency in this world. When we get to the final scene of the show, the lies pile up upon lies, all tangled up in bits of truth. There's no hope of untangling them, only the possibility of escape.

The only other time the word truth is used in the show is the J.J. quote on the truth or lie of the item, and he's lying about his fondness for Dallas. There's no truth here. Plus, he's sort of doing the right thing, but for all the worst reasons.

I've described the show on a couple occasions as a moral horror story, and as a moral thriller. It's been fun over the first three performances to see how quickly the audience engages with our story, and how riveted they are to the crazy, twisting, shocking plot that unreels before them.

I've described some of our New Line shows as roller coaster rides. This is one of those. You will love it.

It's a wild, wonderful, hip ride through the dark depths of modern humanity, and it's a hell of a fun trip! Come join us! We run through June 24, and you can get tickets through MetroTix.

Long Live the Musical!

Something Dirty on the Whole Who's-Who

We've all fallen in love with Sweet Smell of Success as we've worked on it the last several weeks. It's such a privilege to work on material this strong.

I notice that when we talk about it to other people, the first thing we talk about is the sizzling hot jazz music by the great Marvin Hamlisch, and we also talk about playwright John Guare's script, which our music director Jeffrey calls "the wittiest and wickedest" script he's ever worked on.

After all, the source material, both the short story and the film, are so rich and so well-crafted, and then the stage musical builds on that with more superb writing -- and not incidentally, twice as much story, since the film and original story are Act II in the musical. The story of Act I is entirely new backstory, again, masterfully constructed.

But we often forget to mention Craig Carnelia's amazing, acrobatic, smartass lyrics, which are every bit as impressive as the show's other elements. As just one example out of many, let's look at the lyric for the song "Dirt," which is in the middle of Act II, as the story takes a short breather before a roller-coaster final twenty minutes. During this breather, the leads all vacate the stage and the ensemble talks directly to us.

Strike that. The ensemble talks for us. They explain why it is that sixty million Americans read J.J.'s nasty gossip column every morning. But aside from the rich, insightful content here, and the awesomely smug perspective, the actual construction of this lyric is worth a look.

It's worth noting that the script often refers to the ensemble as press agents, as "whisperers" (i.e., Greek chorus), and other things. But here, there's no label; they're just "ensemble." They're outside the story for a moment. They are our stand-ins. Brecht would've loved it.

But it's even more than that. The actors in the ensemble play multiple characters throughout the show. This time they're playing us. They're playing the people who read the gossip columns in 1952 and who consume the equivalent forms today. The song starts with a chant... Notice anything odd about it...?
Feel the heat
On the street;
Can you feel it?
Gonna gonna be,
Gonna gonna be good...
Feel it comin'...
Yes, yeah,
Good, uh-huh,
Hot, hot, hot…

Yes, gossip is as good as sex for these folks. For us. Notice how short the phrases are. As the gossip-orgasm builds, the ideas get simpler, devolving from "Feel the heat on the street" to the more vague "Gonna be good," all the way down to single syllables. And the alliteration of "Gonna gonna be, gonna gonna be good" gives it percussion. At the end of this section the lyric and the rhythm unmistakably mimic the rhythm of sex. Then the music explode... in a gossip-orgasm...?
Gimme what I'm hungry for:
The one thing that's never a bore…!

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.

You gotta love the assumption that gossip is just a healthy past-time like football or baseball. But also notice the great alliteration of "reason I read" and "pick up the paper," and the repetition of the Th sound in Those / The / That in the last three lines. This is really well-crafted. They go on.
With my bacon and eggs.
They go together like a skirt,
And a nice pair of legs.

Notice the assumed sexism which was (along with homophobia) a big driver of gossip. We know they're not talking about men's legs. Also notice that in the third line of this verse there's a full phrase where there was only the repeated single word "Dirt" in that place in the previous verse. It's a wonderful way to use traditional song form -- audiences need clear signposts, like verses and choruses, in their songs -- but also play around within those forms. It's a cool surprise, and it underlines the casually sexist rhyme.

But it's not just the abstract dirt -- celebrity gossip -- that we love; it's the physical dirt, the tactile experience of holding newsprint, the turning of a page to find something unexpected, something many people are mourning today as we move into a digital world. It's the whole experience.
Got the ink on my fingers,
Got the smudge of a smear.
Oh my!
What dirt
We got here!

Again, notice that the more emotional they get, the shorter and simpler their sentences get. We have the close repetition of the sounds in ink and fing-ers, and the almost onomatopoeic alliteration of "smudge of a smear" -- it almost sounds like ink smearing.

Now having explained their appetites, they give us an example. Here's the dirt they love so much. It's like a soap opera, but it's real.
Dallas is a doper,
Dallas is a red;
Susie's gonna leave him flat.
Dallas used to grope 'er,
They were gonna wed;
Look out, look out! Splat!

Notice how many assumptions these strangers make about Susan and Dallas, knowing nothing more than what they read in the gossip columns. And the music tells us how much these folks love that Dallas is a drug addict and a commie.

Schadenfreude in the first degree.

Of course, Dallas is neither. These folks know how nasty their impulses are, they know objectively that people deserve privacy, they know that the gossip columnists can destroy people's careers, but...
Kinda makes you feel bad.
But don't the public have a right to know,
Like our forefathers had?
It's in the constitution!
Call a commie a commie,
Give his reefer a light;
Dallas is dirt
In black and white.

If it weren't true, they wouldn't print it in the paper, would they? Notice the third line rhymes with the first, but again it's extended. Also, up till now, dirt meant gossip in this song, but now "Dallas is dirt..." People are dirt too. They're ink. They are whatever J.J. Hunsecker says they are. For sixty million readers, there's no larger reality here beyond the items in the columns.

Then the ensemble watches as some poor schmuck (Dallas in the script, but it could be anyone, no one is safe), picks up a paper and finds themselves in it... Our stand-ins can barely contain their salacious delight:
There he is!
This is it!
Go on over and see what the paper says!
You could sit
For a bit;
Later on you can read it to Susie in bed.
Man, you're already dead,
Don't you know?

Watchin' them rise is a ball,
But nothin's as sweet as the fall…

And that's the crux of it. Schadenfreude. Misery loves company. And then the music bursts forth in a jazz version of a primal scream:
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

It's so primal, so animal. It's not a choice; it's an addiction. Or are they vampires? But as aggressive and fierce as this lyric is, also notice the beautiful construction. Break the verse above into two four-line stanzas and you can see the rhyme scheme. The first lines both end with "Dirt," though the second time the line is extend, like it was earlier. The second lines rhyme (feed and need), and the third lines rhyme (thirst and First), The fourth lines don't rhyme, for a reason -- the surprise of no rhyme mirrors the surprise of starting the phrase with more sexual imagery ("Give it to me in the..."), and ending it with the Constitution.

Carnelia brings it all home with a trick Sondheim often uses. They create the feeling of building momentum by increasing the rhyming, especially by making a whole stanza rhyme (think of the end of "On the Steps of the Palace"). "Dirt" ends with a Big Finish musically, a great string of rhymes, some alliteration ("whole who's-who," "give me / get me"), but also the most disturbing content of the entire song:
Give me something that can get me through,
Something dirty on the whole who's-who
And keep this in mind as you do:
It don't have to be true...
Don't have to be true...
Don't have to be true...

This is the language of addiction. The more of it you get, the more of it you want. And remember, the ensemble is standing in for us. That's us telling the columnists that we don't really care if what we read is true or not, as long as it's juicy, as long as we get our fix. These are your friends on Facebook sharing a nasty article about a politician they hate, without bothering to check if it's true or not. It don't have to be true...

And that, my friends, is how Russia tampered with our 2016 Presidential election. And this show opened way back in 2002.

When I chose this show for New Line a year and a half ago, I had no idea it would be so freakishly relevant right now. What I love about this song is how it places this whole ugly story right in our laps. We give J.J. power. At the same time, this song is a five-course meal for your ears, such brittle, jittery jazz matched to such fun rhyme and alteration, and all in the service of really insightful social commentary.

It's gonna be a blast living inside this show for the next month. We open next week. I can't wait to share this wild, awesome musical thriller with our audiences!

Long Live the Musical!

On and On and On It Goes

I've been watching a lot of film noir lately, to get me in the right mindset for polishing Sweet Smell of Success. A few things I've noticed -- in almost all of them, there's a fundamentally corrupt, or at least unfair, world as a backdrop, almost everything happens at night, and there's usually a moment in which an otherwise innocent person makes the fateful decision to also lie, cheat, or otherwise manipulate.

All those thing are present in Sweet Smell.

And the cultural backdrop is almost as vivid a character as the four leads. For a while, mid-century, Americans devoured gossip about famous people more ferociously than at any other time before or since. Sure, that's always been a part of our culture, but there was a "Golden Age."

The story of Sweet Smell of Success is a very personal story, among just four people, of love, jealousy, greed, and ego. But underpinning the story is a moral and structural underbelly that makes this story unique, exploring the freaky barter system that fueled those mid-century gossip columns. That system is the "Underworld" that our heroes must learn to navigate.

And it worked like this:

Say you're a 1950s press agent. You make money by finding clients to represent, they pay you a regular fee, and you get them mentioned in the newspapers; and the best mention of all is one of the nationally syndicated "Broadway" (i.e., New York) gossip columnists. The king of those was Walter Winchell, only thinly veiled as the character J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success.

The price of getting your client mentioned favorably in a gossip column is a nasty, preferably scandalous, or at least witty, piece of gossip about someone else. You rat somebody else out, your client gets the prize.

Or the way Sidney and the other press agents explain it in our show:
Sidney: A press agent works for a client.
Press Agents: Yup!
Sidney: A press agent likes to eat.
Agents: You bet!
Sidney: The client says, “Get me in J.J.”
Agents: J.J.!
Sidney: The press agent feels the heat.
Agents: Ouch!
Sidney: J.J. says, “What’ll you give me?”
Here's where you crawl like a bug...
All: Just give him dirt,
Make it hurt,
He gives your client a plug.

Just listen to J.J.'s secretary Madge take his calls:
Madge: (answering the phone) J.J. Hunsecker…
Press Agent: Madge, any space tonight?
Madge: Depends on what you got.
Press Agent: The Democratic presidential nominee?
Madge: What did you find out?
Press Agent: Tell J.J. his divorce papers are sealed.
Madge: (To J.J.) Adlai Stevenson's divorce papers are sealed.
J.J.: Why?
Madge: (To Press Agent) Why?
Press Agent: Give me time -- he'll mention the Blue Angel?
Madge: Find out more and J.J. loves the Blue Angel. (picks up another line) J.J. Hunsecker…

And the result sounds like (also quoting from the show):
Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers packing 'em in at the Persian Room ... Those rumors about Lena Home just won't quit ... Grace Kelly, fresh off High Noon, making yet another married movie star regret he ever said love, honor and oh the hell with it … Advice to a certain polo-playing playboy after the brawl at P.J. Clark’s last night. Learn the difference between men and pigs. Pigs don't tum into men when they drink … Talking of tippling: Dean Martin confessing at The Stork Club that he sees a psychiatrist once a week to help him stop drinking. It's working. Every Tuesday from three to four, he stops drinking ... Item: Libby James, TV glamazon, at Toni's Caprice with married Wall Street biggie. She's learning the hard way that girls get minks the same way minks get minks ... Question in Washington: Will Truman resign before he's impeached? Treason's never a pretty picture ... Ava Gardner is finding out that when hubby Frank Sinatra sends her flowers for no reason, there's a reason ...

That's the universe in which our dark, fierce, adult fable takes place. I keep thinking about that famous review quote of the original Pal Joey in 1940, "Although it is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?" Yes, you could in 1940 and you can now.

It makes me think of a conversation I had last night at rehearsal with Matt Pentecost, who's playing Sidney for us. We've both seen the movie, and Matt was feeling a little unsure since he was going in a somewhat different direction than Tony Curtis did. Matt's Sidney is not irredeemably sociopathic as he was in the film; this Sidney is more needy and weak. He's not fundamentally evil, just without any discernible moral foundation, like no one ever bothered to teach him the basics of right and wrong. And though he thinks he's a master con artist, he's as easily conned as anyone.

In the film, Sidney is as big a monster as J.J. is. In the show, Sidney is just a two-bit hustler, trapped by his ambition and his lust for power. But unlike the film, the stage musical allows Sidney some flashes of vague self-awareness, which arguably make his tragedy even worse.

The difference, of course, is the music. In the film, any emotions these broken people felt were fully submerged, subtextual. But because music is an abstract language, it conveys emotion more powerfully than words can, and so the musical theatre is an inherently emotional storytelling form. Sweet Smell of Success as a musical can explore those dark, complex emotions directly, and a song like "At the Fountain" can give us empathy for a character like Sidney that wasn't possible in the movie.

"At the Fountain" is one of the greatest moments in the show, Sidney's big Act I aria, in which he ponders his luck at becoming J.J.'s new best friend. Sidney is a small man who thinks J.J. will make him a big man. Not a gossip monger anymore, a gossip master. He's wrong.

In "At the Fountain" Sidney sings:
Hey Sidney, you finally found some luck...
You've always been an also-ran
Just racing for a buck;
A guy with a smile,
A way with a word,
Quick with a joke
We've already heard.

Y'ever hear the one about Lana Turner?
Sittin' at the soda fountain,
Dreamin' her soda fountain dreams?

But there was something he could see
For just a moment;
It's like he saw inside of me
What's really there –
What I was,
What I am,
What I'll be…

Maybe I'm at the fountain,
Maybe I'm at the start;
It's time to step up and drink
And not even think;
You don't have to think to be smart.

Sometimes the perfect timing
Feels like a work of art,
'Cause it can bring you your break
And answer the ache;
He offers, you take
The part...

More so than the movie ever does, this helps us understand why Sidney goes along with everything J.J. wants. Sidney is metaphorically at Schwab's soda fountain, and he fancies himself a "star" being "discovered" by J.J. He thinks he's the next Lana Turner. It's ironic that in the earlier scene in the Voodoo Club, Sidney's bullshit agent's pitch to Susan includes the line, "The Voodoo Club could be your Schwab's," but it turns out to be Sidney's Schwab's instead. He thinks.

But also notice, he thinks J.J. looked into Sidney's soul and saw greatness. (No, J.J. looked into Sidney's face and saw an easy mark.) Sidney thinks meeting J.J. was Fate. (No, J.J. looked into Sidney's face and saw an easy mark.) The grand, powerful emotion of the music takes us inside Sidney's head. This is how he sees himself.

That's some really complex character writing from lyricist Craig Carnelia, and coupled with Marvin Hamlisch's lush, soaring music, it's a powerfully emotional moment. It's almost impossible not to feel something for Sidney here. And then he destroys some lives.

And that's a big part of what makes this moral thriller so much fun. If you're not careful, Sidney will charm you too. I guess it's sort of like The Music Man, only this time the scoundrel isn't just ripping off honest small town people using their kids as bait; this time, somebody's apt to get killed.

I realized as we've worked on this show that the central conflict of the show is not exactly what it appears to be. The real conflict isn't about jealousy or power; it's about empathy. J.J. and Sidney are so broken, so damaged, they can't imagine how someone else feels, they can't put themselves in someone else's shoes.

And that makes it really easy to destroy people.

Recent brain research suggests that if a child doesn't get enough physical affection in the first years of life, they won't properly develop the pre-frontal cortex in their brain, the area which controls empathy. J.J. and Sidney aren't just cruel; they're incapable of feeling empathy. In the original short story, Susan says to Sidney, "We love each other in a way that you and J.J. could never understand." She's absolutely right.

There's so much complexity and depth to these characters, and the writing is exceptional. Our music director Jeffrey Carter calls it the "wittiest and wickedest" book he's ever worked on. And then there's the amazing music and lyrics... And this superb cast of ours...!

You gotta see this show. It's genuinely extraordinary, a real roller coaster ride, and when will you ever get another chance to see it...?

Long Live the Musical!

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.

J.J. and Sidney are weirdly parallel to George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the rest of the human race as Nick and Honey. They humiliate each other, study each other, admire each other, fear each other, hurt each other, and yes, love each other. They see a kindred spirit in each other, and they leave nothing but destruction in their path.

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 do:
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!