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!
Scott

ZORBA

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!
Scott

The Zombies of Penzance

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

NEW LINE THEATRE'S HISTORIC FIND –

LONG-LOST 'OPERATIC ABOMINATION,'
GILBERT & SULLIVAN'S
"THE ZOMBIES OF PENZANCE"

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!
Scott

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!
Scott

'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!
Scott

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!
Scott

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!
Scott

A Secretary Is Not a Toy

As Trump stumbles through the ritual of a President-Elect casting – sorry, I mean, selecting – his cabinet secretaries, my stoner brain has been imagining General Bullmoose from Lil Abner being a perfect fit for Trump's cabinet as Secretary of Defense, with Caldwell B. Cladwell from Urinetown as Secretary of Treasury, and Mister Mister from The Cradle Will Rock as Secretary of Commerce.

A liberal nightmare.

But then I thought, who would I choose if, god help us all, I was the President? So here are my picks, all characters from musicals, by the way... What would yours be?

Secretary of State – Angel Dumott Schunard. Could you imagine anyone better suited to be our "diplomat to the world"? You know she wouldn't take shit from Putin or anyone else. And it would send a powerful message to the world to have a trans person of color in this powerful, high-profile position.

Secretary of Treasury – Billy Crocker. I know, I know, why not pick Alexander Hamilton? Honestly, I'm not sure I want a personality that big and that aggressive in my cabinet. Billy is a stock broker, but he clearly does not worship at the money shrine as too many of his colleagues do. He puts people ahead of money. He's a problem solver. I think Crocker might be just the guy to stand up to Wall Street. Plus he'd make Cabinet meetings way more fun.

Secretary of Commerce – "Miss Mona" Stangley. As much as politicians pretend to venerate "small business," have we ever had a Secretary of Commerce who's actually a small business owner? Much less, a woman who's a small business owner...? Like Angel, Miss Mona won't take shit from anybody, and she'll charm the pants off any foreign dignitaries. Literally.

Secretary of Defense – Superman. It's true if you didn't know it, Superman is a character in the 1966 musical It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman! He's smart, level-headed, unemotional, knows the world well, plus he's Superman.

Secretary of Interior – Johnny Appleweed. Just listen to him and see if you agree...
I suppose I should tell you something about myself since we’re going to be spending some time together. I’m I guess what you’d call a stoner, a professional you might say, and it’s such a fuckin’ pleasant thing to be that God laid it on my heart to strike out into the bosom of America, sharing the joy and good fellowship of the Goddess Cannabis by spreading the seed wherever I go, and leaving behind a little chewy goodness for my brothers and sisters and those in between.

As fortuosity would have it, my actual last name is Appleweed, so I was the obvious choice for the job. God provides me with the seeds, I know not exactly how, and I crisscross America planting the nutritious goodness of the marijuana plant nestled safely in the bosom of Mother Earth. Trust me, she don’t mind and on occasion has been known to thank me for it.

I can guarantee there'd be no oil drilling in federal parks with Johnny in office...

Secretary of Agriculture – Seymour Krelborn. Again, this seems an obvious pick to me. Who else in the world of musical theatre knows more about plants?

Secretary of Labor – Larry Foreman. As a 1930s labor activist, I couldn't find a better pick for the Labor Department. Under Larry Foreman, we would see the return of labor unions as a force in this country.

Secretary of Health and Human Services – Caroline Thibodeaux. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what qualifications you'd need for this job. Wikipedia says, "The duties of the secretary revolve around human conditions and concerns in the United States. . . The Department of Health and Human Services oversees 11 agencies including the Food and Drug Administration, Center for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, Administration for Children and Families, and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services." As one of the people who needs the services of HHS, I think Caroline would be an exceptional pick to run the agency.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker. I don't think you could find a man more in touch with and more empathetic to "the least among us." According to Wikipedia, "The Department's mission is to increase home ownership, support community development and increase access to affordable housing free from discrimination." Sounds like a job for a crusading populist like Cry-Baby. After all, he proved you can beat the system.

Secretary of Transportation – Riff Raff. Again, an obvious choice. Imagine all the technology he could share with us!

Secretary of Energy – Leo Szilard. Again, lucky for me, real-life atomic physicist Leo Szilard is a character in the musical Atomic. So that was easy.

Secretary of Education – Hedwig Schmidt. I think Hedwig could teach us all a lot about how we teach our kids, what we teach our kids, and all the ways kids can be beaten down by the world around them. I can't think of a better advocate for children and progressive education. Which means we'd have two trans people in the Cabinet!

Secretary of Veteran Affairs – Claude Bukowski. Another obvious choice. What other musical theatre character could understand the horror of war better than Claude? Who would have more compassion for our returning veterans?

Secretary of Homeland Security – Celia Peachum. Seems to me we need a tough, no-nonsense, shit-kicking, ball-buster in this job, and who better than Ball Buster in Chief, Mrs. Peachum? This new-ish department oversees the Coast Guard, the Federal Protective Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (including the Border Patrol), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Who could keep all those big egos in check? Mrs. Peachum.

Attorney General – Veronica Sawyer. We assume she's going to law school, right? She's smart as hell, strong as hell, and cannot stomach injustice. Veronica would be amazing as the chief law enforcement officer and chief lawyer of the United States government. When Veronica enters in the final scene of Heathers, she sings:
Listen up, folks.
War is over.
Brand new sheriff's come to town.
We are done with acting evil,
We will lay our weapons down.

We need that mindset right now.

Vice President – Alexander Throttlebottom. The perfect man for the job with virtually no actual duties.

As an artsy liberal, I am very unnerved by many of Trump's picks for his Cabinet. This is my way of dealing with that, finding a better, or at least a more decipherable, world in my musicals than in Real America right now. After all, what did the electorate really say in this election? Trump won the electoral college fair and square, but 2.5 million more Americans voted for Hillary. Among voters who said the economy was their most important issue, Hillary won. Among voters who wanted a candidate who "cares about me," Hillary won. And about a quarter of Trump voters said they didn't think he was fit for the office. And, perhaps most unsettling of all, about half the electorate didn't vote for either major party candidate. About a third of millennials voted for a third-party candidate.

Characters are always so much easier to understand than people are.

In case you're not as hardcore a musical theatre fan as me, and you're wondering what shows these characters are from... Angel/­Rent, Billy Crocker/­Anything Goes, Miss Mona/­Best Little Whorehouse, Superman/­Superman, Johnny Appleweed/­Johnny Appleweed, Seymour Krelborn/­Little Shop of Horrors, Larry Foreman/­The Cradle Will Rock, Caroline/­Caroline, or Change, Cry-Baby Walker/­Cry-Baby, Riff-Raff/­Rocky Horror, Leo Szilard/­Atomic, Hedwig/­Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Claude/­Hair, Mrs. Peachum/­Threepenny, Veronica/­Heathers, Throttlebottom/­Of Thee I Sing.

I love this Cabinet. I wish these were all real people and I got to choose the Cabinet. Out of 16 positions, ten are men, six are women (including two trans women), three are nonwhite, and two are aliens... actual aliens. Anything in the Constitution about that...?

This is how I deal with the encroaching Trump presidency. Judge me if you must.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

Top Ten Hidden Gems on the New Line Website

New Line was one of the first theatre companies in the St. Louis region (possibly the first) to have a website, first launched in 1997. But more recently, I've been concerned that New Line's website didn't look great on mobile devices, and in this new age, that's a problem. So a couple years ago, we started paying for a service that automatically turned our site into a mobile site, but it didn't really look that great.

This fall we hired local web designer Cristopher Ontiveros to design an all-new website for New Line, this time a site designed to work on any and all platforms, desktop, smartphone, smartpads, whatever.

I wrote a blog post a while back about the cool things you can find on New Line's YouTube Channel, and I did a list of the 15 coolest shows New Line has produced. But as much as I brag about New Line's "full-service website," I usually don't get a chance to brag on the cool stuff contained therein...

So now I will.

When we produced The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas back in 2003, I jumped into the research like I would on any other show. I read the book The Whorehouse Papers, an hilarious, behind-the-scenes tell-all, written by Larry L. King, who wrote the script for the musical, based on his own amazing "gonzo journalism" article for Playboy. So now that original article is on our site so you can read it too. Unless you're easily shocked, you really have to read it...

People forget that when Grease debuted off Broadway in 1971, one of its most direct ancestors was Hair (note both titles are about era-defining hair-dos), and it was every bit as vulgar as Hair was, and every bit as non-linear. Later, when Grease was licensed to schools and regional theatres, they un-vulgarized the script considerably.

But the whole reason I wanted New Line to produce Grease in 2007 was to show people what the real, original Grease was like, ugly, vulgar, shocking, mean, aggressive. Like Hair, Grease gave us a snapshot of a turbulent moment in American history, a cultural pivot point.

So I got hold of the original published script and made a chart of all the original Grease obscenities, complete with page numbers in the rental script, so that people could see what the original dialogue was, if they were interested. When we produced it, we put all these vulgarities back, and it really changed the show, made it much darker, less musical comedy and more social document – as it was meant to be.

Another of the resources I've created, which I'm very very proud of, and which I hope are as useful for others as they were for us, are my Source Rock lists. When we produced Grease, part of my research was to listen to as much early rock and roll as I could get my hands on (Amazon has a bunch of collections!), specifically from the years the Grease kids were in high school, 1955-1959. My theory was that since I knew one of the show's writers was writing from his own life, I figured the songs in the show would be deeply informed by the actual songs of the period. And I was right. I wanted to find the real songs that inspired the Grease songs. In many cases, I found what was obviously the inspiration ("Eddy, My Love," for instance); and in other cases, I found probable or likely inspirations. In many cases, I could sing the Grease song in counterpoint to the actual 1950s song. So cool. At the time, I made mix CDs for the actors and musicians, so they could get the authentic sounds in their heads, and then I uploaded my Grease "Source Rock" Chart onto our site, so others could use it as well.

When we started work on High Fidelity, I emailed composer Tom Kitt about his score. It was clear that each song was in the voice of one of Rob's rock gods, including a Beatles song, an Indigo Girls song, a Ben Folds song, an Aretha Franklin song, you get the idea. But I wanted to know if Kitt had particular songs in mind when he was writing, the way the Grease guys obviously did. Within half an hour, Kitt had emailed me back an amazing list of all the real songs that inspired the High Fidelity songs. Again, I made mix CDs for the actors and band, and I uploaded my High Fidelity "Source Rock" Chart to our website.

I also did a Source Rock list for Return to the Forbidden Planet...

I've always hated the (relative) barbarity of auditions. As playwright James Kirkwood once said, "The audition system, especially for musicals, is the closest thing to the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. It really is brutal." I agree. To make it a little less intimidating, early in New Line's history, I started accumulating Audition Tips, and soon after, I posted them to our site. I've been told by both actors and teachers alike that they're very helpful. I hope so!

I started my blog, The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre, on January 1, 2007. The reason was clear from the start. I had always devoured every behind-the-scenes book on musical theatre I could find, so I was determined to create a real-time, behind-the-scenes chronicle of every show New Line produces, to give students, audience members, and everybody else a real look at our process, the easy parts and the difficult parts, the successes and the failures. It's something I would have killed for this as a 17-year-old drama kid.

In between shows, I decided to blog more generally about the art form, sometimes as fanboy, sometimes as public intellectual, sometimes as creative explorer. But after seven or eight years of blog posts, I realized it would be hard for people to find my posts that weren't directly related to shows (for which you could use the dates to find them). So I started a subject index for my blog, and I've been told it's very helpful

A sampling of topics: under the general heading of Musical Theatre, there's Terms and Definitions, The End of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Meta-Musicals, The New Golden Age of Musical Theatre, The Neo Musical Comedy, The Neo Rock Musical, The New Movie Musical; as well as topics like Respect for Musicals, Acting in Musicals, Choreographing a Non-Dance Number in a Musical, Directing Musicals, Emotion in Musicals, The Lie of Escapism, Musicals and Shakespeare, Musicals and Star Trek, Musicals and Storytelling, Adult Language, Audiences, Auditions, Comedy, The Hero Myth, and Silence.

There are also a lot of posts containing lists, among them Top Ten Reasons It's Great to Be a Musical Theatre Fan, 25 Reasons to Love Musical Theatre, Top Ten Reasons Why St. Louis Theatre Rocks, New Line's 15 Coolest Shows, Ten Alternative Musicals You Might Not Know, Ten Older Shows New Line Should Do, Ten Musical Theatre Titles We Take for Granted, Ten Great Musicals Pre-1964, The Most Interesting Musicals Throughout History, Musicals Live on Video, Great Documentaries about Musical Theatre, Top Ten Desert Island Musical Theatre Books, Non-Musical-Theatre Books and Videos for Musical Theatre Artists, Top Ten Novels That Musicals Are Based On, Ten Lesser Known Movie Musicals, Ten Great Movies About Musicals, Top Ten TV Christmas Musicals, The Worst Types at Auditions, and one of my faves, "Fellini, Fosse, Woody, Sondheim, and Stew."

And all accessible through my handy-dandy blog index.

One of the things that gets the most visits on our website is my show analysis chapters, including all my essays that haven't been published yet, about shows like bare, Bukowsical, Cry-Baby, Evita, The Fantasticks, I Love My Wife, Kiss of the Spider Woman, A New Brain, Next to Normal, Passing Strange, Reefer Madness, Return to the Forbidden Planet, The Robber Bridegroom, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and others. Just go to our Sitemap, and go to the far right column at the bottom.

Since I started my blog in 2007, my show chapters are an accumulating and rewriting of my blog posts, and I haven't been keeping up. I still have chapters to write on Hands on a Hardbody, Bonnie & Clyde, Jerry Springer the Opera, Threepenny, Heathers, American Idiot, Atomic, and Celebration. But if you're interested in those shows, you can still read my blog posts.

Since the beginning, New Line has had a dual purpose, to promote our work but also to promote the art form. From the beginning, New Line's website included links to all the theatre companies in the St. Louis area. We did this partly because I read that the more your site is an "authority," a place people know to go to for information, the more traffic the site will get. But the other reason was to make it clear that New Line is not in competition with other area theatres. Our shows run four weeks; if someone sees a show at Upstream this week, they can still come see us the other three weeks we run. To further reinforce all that, we also give free program ads to small companies in almost every program.

Also, fairly early in our online history, we added a page of Upcoming Musicals in the St. Louis area. As I said, New Line promotes the art form, not just the musicals we produce. It's fun to keep this list up-to-date. We get a wonderful variety of work every season, even within the genre of musical theatre. We don't keep school productions and church groups on this list, because it would be too difficult to keep up with, but otherwise, it's a pretty comprehensive list. And I can tell from our statistics, that people use it a lot.

Two publications did lengthy feature articles about New Line leading up to our 25th season. American Theatre magazine, the national magazine for professional theatre in our country, did a beautiful feature about New Line in 2014 called "Those Magic Changes" (although I don't think the writer knew about my deep love for Grease), and the tag line was, "In case you haven't noticed, the American musical is changing keys and adding new voices. Scott Miller's small theatre in St. Louis is keeping score." Seriously, what could be better than that?

The article's writer Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote:
Survey today's new-musical makers and you'll find that many have a similar New Line story: about how Miller secured the rights to their show not long after its initial run, auspicious or otherwise, and ended up staging a production that found a receptive, even ecstatic audience in St. Louis, a town with no shortage of musical-theatre options. . . There are edgier theatre companies in the U.S., but it would be hard to find a musicals-only company with programming as consistently provocative or as reluctant to proffer theatrical comfort food. . . You might say he's in the business of changing people's minds: about shows they thought they hated, about subjects they didn't think could be sung about, about the musical form itself. The key to Miller's success may be that – for all the ego necessarily involved in running a theatre and writing several books and blog posts expounding your point of view – what has guided him above all is his willingness to have his own mind changed, even occasionally blown.

The following year, The Riverfront Times did another long, awesome feature story about New Line, as we were about to open our 25th season, called, "How Scott Miller Is Revamping the Musical – and Putting St. Louis Theatre on the Map," and the tag line was, "His sharp, smart musicals have gained a national following." Again, what's not to love?

Of course it was nice to read all those compliments about the cool work we've done over the years, but more importantly for us, both these articles now serve as outstanding calling cards, objective sources testifying to our artistry, our fearlessness, our excellence, our adventurousness. When the usual struggles of running a small non-profit get overwhelming, I re-read one or both of these articles, and it reboots me.

The thing on our website of which I'm personally proudest is our Show Pages. Every New Line show going back to 2002 (plus a few before that) has its own webpage, including details about the show and the New Line production, but all the links to related material, articles, books, interviews, analyses, websites, videos, etc. I have to admit, we've only recently converted our website to an multi-platform design, so the older show pages are not all really mobile-friendly. We'll get to that when we have some time...

All in all, a pretty cool website, no? And you can find even more coolness browsing around our Sitemap. Our productions are obviously the most important part of what we do, but our website is important too, more so than most websites. We hope you find lots there to intrigue you, to inform you, and to inspire you.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

The Most Happy Fella

It's always a valuable exercise for me, at this time every year, to think seriously about what I'm thankful for. After all, I really do have my dream job, running my own musical theatre company. And yes, it's often very hard, but it's still my dream job. I don't ever want to take any of that for granted.

Most years when I do this, I write about the obvious things I'm thankful for – the writers who write our shows, the actors and designers and musicians who create our work, our faithful contributors and funders, and of course our audience, who comes back show after show after show, no matter how crazy we get. But let's be honest, I would be a total dick if I weren't deeply, deeply grateful for all those people making our adventures happen, wouldn't I? So can we just stipulate all that...?

With all that in mind, this year I want to focus on just one thing I'm thankful for – well, two things, really – Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, two of the coolest, warmest, most genuine people I've ever known. They've been strong supporters of the arts in St. Louis for many years. Until last year, most people knew their name because of the Kranzberg Theatre and Cabaret spaces in Grand Center. But now the Kranzbergs are responsible for the Marcelle Theatre on Samuel Shepard Drive, New Line's new home, and also the brand new .ZACK theatre space on Locust, an arts incubator which opens next week with Tesseract Theatre's world premiere of Adverse Effects.

And there are more spaces to come. A couple years ago, the first time Ken and I talked about the possibility of creating a new space for New Line, he told me his goal was to open 5-6 more theatres in Grand Center, to create a genuine, thriving theatre district.

He's well on his way.

The Kranzbergs first started coming to New Line shows five or six years ago. They've been assaulted by Jerry Springer the Opera, Bukowsical, American Idiot... but they told me the only show over that time that they didn't really like was Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. But that was the only one.

I'll never forget getting a text from Nancy after they saw American Idiot, telling me that they were listening to Green Day. How awesome is that.

It was just about this time of year, two years ago, that Ken called me and told me he had a building that might work as a blackbox theatre for us. I went to see it, we talked about the basic logistics, and within a couple months, work had begun. Ken hired New Line's resident set designer, architect Rob Lippert, to design the new theatre for us, which meant that everything was designed with our needs in mind. How often does any company get that luxury? A year ago, October, we opened the first show at the Marcelle, New Line's Heathers, which sold out every night.

We had worked in a blackbox theatre for seven years at the ArtLoft downtown, and it's absolutely wonderful to be back in one again. The possibilities are literally limitless, and we've returned to the kind of serious intimacy we had at the ArtLoft. For the first time in twenty-five years, New Line has a permanent home. A really beautiful home. And we have Ken and Nancy to thank for that.

Personally, I really couldn't be more grateful. Ever since we left the ArtLoft in 2007, all I've wanted was to get New Line back into a blackbox. It's where we belong.

So when I sit down for turkey today, my thanks go to the Kranzbergs.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

Attend the Tale of Donald Trump

All theatre is political, including all musicals.

Some are more wholly political like Assassins, Of Thee I Sing, Cabaret, Evita, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, or Hair; some only partly so like Purlie, The Scottsboro Boys, Li’l Abner, Camelot, Finian’s Rainbow, Hairspray, or Ragtime; and some even subliminally political like Man of La Mancha, West Side Story, Hands on a Hardbody, or The Rocky Horror Show. But once you look for politics in the musical theatre, you find it everywhere.

For instance, in Annie Get Your Gun, the fierce sexism of the plot and the songs “The Girl That I Marry” and “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” are disturbing enough from a modern perspective, but the idea that Annie has to lose on purpose in order to win Frank couldn’t be more abhorrent today. You might argue that we shouldn’t look at old shows through a modern lens, but it was a political choice to tell that story that way with that ending. It mirrored and reinforced the dominant view of gender in America.

Kiss Me Kate swam in the same politics, juxtaposing a fictional, past, male-dominated world against a real world in which women were becoming increasingly uncontrollable. Both shows came at a time when America was trying to wedge women back into their old, prewar subservience. Just a couple years later, women in musicals would start to get stronger, in shows like Pal Joey, among others.

Political trends have been present in almost all musical theatre storytelling over the years. Casts became integrated as America became integrated. Female characters became overtly sexual (in shows like On the Town and Pal Joey) when American women became overtly sexual. Musical comedy morality became more ambiguous as mainstream American culture moved away from the certainties of traditional organized religion. Every choice made by writers, directors, and designers was political, and each choice either reinforced or challenged prevailing social and political values. No, No, Nanette was about wealth and its implications. Anything Goes was about American culture’s preoccupation with celebrity and the growing commercialization of religion. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was about America’s reinvigorated postwar hypermaterialism. It was all political.

So in that spirit, I offer up my own personal reaction to the 2016 election season that has just concluded, in the only language I know. What a blast it is having a front row seat to this amazing pivot point in our political and cultural history! Don't worry, we'll learn to navigate this new age soon enough...

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my lyric. If it's not obvious, you should sing this to the tune of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" and if anyone wants to record themselves singing it for me, that would be awesome! Okay, to be honest, I'd really love for someone to stage and sing this on video and put it on YouTube. Just sayin'.

You can tell whether or not you're a real musical theatre nerd by whether or not you actually sing the song out loud as you read the lyric. You will. So without further ado...

With apologies to Uncle Steve...

Attend the tale of Donald Trump,
A pumpkin face and a doughy rump,
A comic comb-over, swept up front
(A nearly miraculous structural stunt).
He stumbled on, from stump to stump,
Did Donald Trump,
A whiny, (not-really-)rich bitch.

He swore that he would beat this chick,
To compensate for his tiny dick.
No self-awareness or self-control,
The neediest sort of a Twittering troll,
Was Donald,
Was Donald Trump,
The crazy, cluelessly kitsch bitch.

Monetize their rage, Donald!
Copyright their gloom!
For your sin,
You'll soon be in
A rubber room!

It's clear Americans have lost;
It cost much more than the price it cost.
He tossed us into the toilet bowl;
He cost us the loss of our national soul.
The game is up and we're the chump.
Thank Donald Trump,
That nasty, carnival pitch-bitch.

Bulls in china shops aren't this bad!
He's much worse than the worst we've had;
Worse than Ben Carson,
Worse than Ted Cruz,
Ask all the people he constantly sues.
Cheats employees and vendors too,
Steals like repeat offenders do.
Donald was deft, he saw his moment.
He hid his cash in his hair when he'd comb it.
Donald! Donald! Donald! Donald! Truuuuump!

Attend the tale of Donald Trump.
He found a shitload of sharks to jump.
He plays with fire, we get burned;
But lucky for us, there's a lesson we learned:
Be more than
That tiny man,
That un-American
Grinch
Bitch.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

It Was Great When It All Began

I have a problem with Rocky Horror.

I love and understand it too much. Having directed the show for New Line back in 2002 and written a chapter about it for my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, I love it even more now than I did as a crazy high school drama kid seeing the film more than 80 times at the old Varsity Theatre (now Vintage Vinyl).

But my obsessive love has its drawbacks. It's very hard for me to see any production of The Rocky Horror Show now, because too many people doing the show don't understand it, so their productions are chock full of missteps. When I directed the show, I watched every movie mentioned in "Science Fiction Double Feature." I researched every cultural reference. I read interviews with the original cast and designers. I got to know Rocky intimately. And that makes it nearly impossible for me to see productions of the show. I know it too well.

I watched most of the recent TV remake of Rocky Horror, and it was better than I expected, though still a bit tame... A local production of the show just closed, but I couldn't go see it, mainly for the reasons just listed. And to be clear, this post has nothing to do with that production.

But as far as I'm concerned...

Rocky Horror has to be set in the early 1970s. Though Rocky fans will often declare that it's a sendup of 1950s B horror flicks, that's not really true. No, Rocky Horror uses the language of sci-fi and horror films (from the 1930s and 50s) to get at its real point, which is a satire of the Sexual Revolution (embodied by Frank) and how Americans reacted to it. Half the country was Brad, terrified by this new freedom and openness; and half the country was Janet, embracing the New Sexuality perhaps too enthusiastically. But the show also uses other pop culture references, to Steve Reeves movies, to magazine ads for Frederick's of Hollywood, to Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books, etc.

This isn't a show about sci-fi and horror; it's a show about changing sexuality. Horror is just the language of the story, because most classic horror stories are about sublimated sexuality. It's the perfect language for this story.

Rocky Horror doesn't make sense if it's updated and torn from its original cultural context, at the peak of the Sexual Revolution, when all these old movies were playing on local late night TV. The story has to be set in the early 1970s because glam (proto-punk) rock was the only rock genre in which gender was fluid, if not irrelevant. Frank chooses glam-punk because it suits him. (A number of pop culture historians say that Rocky costumer Sue Blaine invented the British punk look with her original Rocky costumes.) The Rocky revival in 2000, costumed all in black leather (and the many productions that have imitated it) utterly missed the point of the show. This isn't a story about S&M or B&D, and it's not a story about sex in general; it's a story about a major cultural shift around sexuality.

Productions that yank Rocky out of its intended context are as wrong-headed as productions of Chicago that remove its central vaudeville metaphor in favor of black leather. What's the deal with black leather and musicals these days?

Maybe these folks think they're making Rocky and Chicago more relevant by making their settings more contemporary, but they're not. They're only short-circuiting the smart, insightful social commentary at the heart of both shows, stripping out fundamental elements, turning both shows into naughty romps instead of the fierce, searing satires both shows are when treated with respect.

You wouldn't take Grease or Hair out of their historical contexts; why would you do it to Rocky Horror?

Even the wonderful film version of Rocky Horror made some missteps – after all, on stage Rocky was punk, not goth. The filmmakers' decision to go gothic makes sense considering the sci-fi and horror language of the storytelling. But goth is less subversive and less aggressive than punk.

Maybe directors and designers are trying to distance themselves from the original, maybe thinking they must "re-invent" Rocky for some reason; but when they do, they often lose the incredibly clever concept behind the costuming. Frank and his fellow aliens are trying to imitate Earth attire, but they do it badly because they're not terribly bright. That's why Frank originally wore an upside-down corset. This "wrongness" is both funny and endearing. And sexy.

I wish companies would produce the original stage version; luckily New Line was able to, back in 2002. But now, companies have to use the script from the misguided revival, which added a chorus to the show, to better imitate the movie. In the original script, there is no party over at the Frankenstein place, just a small family gathering. Adding the chorus turns Rocky into a musical comedy instead of the dark concept musical it really is.

I love the original stage show and I love the movie, as different as they are. But I don't like losing what's wonderful about the original in the service of imitating the movie. The TV Rocky was too often a pale imitation of the original film, often reproducing exact shots.

Maybe worst of all, in my opinion, is encouraging audience participation at performances of the stage show, which was not meant to have audience participation. The wild (and admittedly awesome) practice of the audience talking back to the film is the result of truly terrible pacing; watch the movie on video and you'll see what I mean. There's just so much room for vocal reactions...

But any well directed stage production does not have room for the audience to talk back. Rocky is a comedy and the secret to comedy is pacing. If dialogue is constantly being interrupted by the audience, if the audience is singing along badly (as usual), if the audience is screaming at the actors, it becomes about the audience instead of the story. Maybe that's fun for some folks, but it makes for lousy theatre and lousy storytelling.

The movie is exactly the same every time we see it. A stage show is not.

I remember reading that for the 2000 revival, the producers wanted audience participation, but regular Broadway audiences paying $100 a ticket didn't know the jokes, so the producers started putting "plants" out in the audience to get them going. Apparently it still didn't work. When you're supposed to yell at the actors, it becomes a far less subversive act – which is the only reason it's fun.

And really, can you think of anything more disrespectful than yelling at actors onstage during a live performance? There's a difference between yelling at a movie screen and yelling at people.

I know, I know, I'm too much of a purist. But I don't think that's the problem here. I think the real problem is most people doing Rocky Horror don't even know how smart and insightful it is. They think it's just a silly, dirty show that sells really well. It's so much more than that, as I described in depth in my Rocky chapter.

Like Grease (which has also lost its original bite), the wildness and sexual anarchy of Rocky disguises its intelligence and wicked sharp social satire. But both shows have so much more going on than most people recognize, which means most audiences get clueless, shallow productions of this brilliant, beautifully crafted piece of theatre. As I wrote in my Rocky chapter:
At its core it tells a tale we’ve heard many times before, back even before Shakespeare, of braving a wilderness, of surviving lost innocence, of sexual awakening, about acceptance of difference, about birth and death, forgiveness and redemption, about the fall from grace of a transgressive god.

And yet we often get a Rocky Horror that misses all that. Maybe people assume Rocky doesn't deserve serious respect because it's so "dirty." Maybe it's Americans' perpetual hangups about sexuality that keep most folks from recognizing the brilliance and artistry behind this iconic show.

Whatever the reasons, it's a shame. Sure, Rocky is fun even when it's shallow; but it's so much more fun when it's not shallow, and it reveals fundamental truths about America. As a culture we are still completely freaked out by sexuality. On the one hand, I wish we'd get past that; on the other hand, if we did, we wouldn't need Rocky Horror anymore.

And that would be a shame too.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott