It's Harder To Be the Bard.

I am lost.

I'm having a crisis of faith. I've long believed that the theatre is my church, in a very real and serious sense. That makes me a priest, in its fundamental meaning. And I'm having a crisis of faith.

I don't understand how and why we got here. All my life I've had this core belief in humanity, that people are all basically good, that in the long term we always head in the right direction and we take care of each other. But how can I believe that anymore? Half our country voted for the most corrupt, most vulgar, most destructive person in our political history. A third of our country still thinks only he can fix it. Millions of Americans made the pandemic so much worse and so much lengthier because they chose to be irrationally selfish, and then re-branded selfishness as freedom.

How can I hang on to a fundamentally positive, optimistic view of humanity today? And by extension, how can I believe that art could ever make a dent in that ferocious fear and hatred? Yoda was right about the Dark Side. I just never thought we'd see it play out in real time in America.

Something I can't define has really changed in me. I see the world so very differently now than I used to. I can see so much that I could not see before, and some of it really unpleasant. Maybe it's the whole primordial stew of the pandemic and all its repercussions, the baffling, erratic behavior of some previously rational people during and after the pandemic, the financial stress that the still lingering effects of Covid have placed on me personally and on New Line.

It's also likely about me turning 59 this month, and New Line turning 30 last year.

One of the things I see really clearly now is the way people interact with each other in this post-pandemic world. It's like I put on the sunglasses in that sci-fi movie They Live and I can finally see all the aliens. So what have I noticed? One thing is that everybody right now seems either consciously, deliberately in service of their fellow humans; OR they seem defiantly committed to Every Man for Himself

I'm not being melodramatic (at least, I don't think I am). Along with all the additional complexity and maddening nuance in our world, there seems to be also this new, even brighter line between those of us who feel some deep down obligation to do something right now, to help, to heal; and those of us who are still belting out their "I Want" song in a spotlight down-center.

Some of our media is more focused than ever on informing and explaining these times we're living in, and the implications of all that's happening to and around us. BUT some of our media is still focused on clicks and ads, and that kind of cynicism reverberates down through society. What do we do when half the country is afraid -- and that fear is based on devilishly well-tuned lies? What do we do when half the media realizes they can make big bucks off that fear?

I want to believe those of us in the profession of storytelling have the biggest obligation of all today.  I want to believe that what we do still can help. After all, every human culture is created, defined, and remembered by its stories. Stories are the only way we have to truly understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. But to quote Uncle Steve, "Careful -- no one is alone." Our world has been flooded recently by false stories, more than ever before, which have every bit as much persuasive power as true stories.

Certain forces in American politics learned decades ago how to cynically manipulate the fear that has enveloped tens of millions of Americans, and they have reached their cynical stride today. These false storytellers use all the same devices and tools of the true storytellers. But while the true storytellers enrich and enlighten their audiences -- to serve them -- the false storytellers reassure their audiences that all their darkest fears are actually true, every nightmare becoming reality, in order to profit from them. The forces of the Dark Side know full well the human tendency toward confirmation bias -- accepting only that which confirms your own beliefs -- and they exploit our weakness fully.

There are so many examples of this cynical manipulation, but maybe the most obvious and most deadly were the manufactured controversies over wearing masks and over vaccinations during the pandemic. It was like no one had been taught The Golden Rule in kindergarten or Sunday School. It was like The Golden Rule was for suckers. Selfishness and willful ignorance were redefined as patriotic. And the false storytellers made fat handfuls of profit off the fear and anger and cruelty.

The true storytellers kept telling their true stories, but suddenly they found themselves in a storytelling hall of mirrors, where false stories were trumpeted as true, and true stories were indicted as false -- and only money and volume got to decide which was which. We were reminded repeatedly that people believe what they hear first, what they hear most, what goes unrefuted, and what comes from a trusted source.

Notably, they don't necessarily believe what is true.

Just like it was a century ago when there were tons of newspapers, pulling exactly the same cynical crap, we Americans have to learn all over again how to tell the difference between what's true and what's not, especially when what's true often isn't what we'd prefer.

I'm lost right now.

I chose long ago that my life was going to be about serving my fellow humans as a storyteller; and I long ago accepted the inherent price to pay, that I'd never make much money that way. When I was a little kid, I told everybody I wanted to be an actor, but I didn't have the vocabulary for what I really felt. I wanted to be a storyteller. I was called to it. It was always inside me. It's what I am. I tell stories with music. I guess I also tell stories about stories with music.

I'm not saying storytellers are better or more important than any other vocation. People are called to medicine or to teaching or food or building, in the same way I was called to storytelling. It took me a good chunk of my life to fully understand, though, that storytelling is as vital to human survival as medicine, teaching, food, and building.

So now I'm lost.

I already said that, didn't I?

Half our country would turn down a glass of water in the middle of the desert if someone of the other political party were offering it, and their hatred is based on belief in lies. How can I tell them a story, or I guess more to the point, how can I get them to listen to a story? And if storytelling isn't enough anymore, what do the storytellers do?

You can lead a horse to water but you can't put his head in bed with your enemy.

See what I did there? I put a whole weird story inside your head, and maybe I invoked The Godfather and/or Animal House. And why do so many of us know those two movies, all these years later, including people who weren't yet born when the films were released? Because humans need stories. We constantly consume stories. We can't live without stories. And the good stories, the ones that are important, the ones that touch us, the ones that teach us, that enlighten us, those are the ones that stay with us.

I do understand why my entire industry had to be shut down when the pandemic struck. Everything I do is built around people gathering in public places. But it's just that now I can see more clearly than ever that we as a culture don't value our storytellers much. We don't take care of them. We insist "the market" -- in other words, money -- must decide success or failure. Just like an auto parts store.

In case you weren't sure, storytellers are not auto parts stores.

Storytelling should no more be subjected to the amorality and immorality of capitalism, than healthcare or education or fire departments should be. There should never be a profit margin for providing something essential to human existence, well-being, and happiness. Call me a Commie Pinko, but that seems about as obvious to me as the tiny claw marks on my arm from my cat Macheath.

Do we really have to wait till the 23rd century to learn all the things Star Trek laid out for us more than fifty years ago? An end to racism, sexism, war, poverty, hatred, the flourishing of knowledge and science and connection.

Do we have to stand helpless when the false storytellers spout off about Jewish space lasers again? Do we have to let them steal the conversation just because they're loud and mean? Do we have to let people makes pots of money by reassuring the fearful that all their fears and nightmares are worth fearing? Can't we speak up aggressively against the false stories and condemn them? And contradict them? Is there any way to flood the zone with true stories?


Not if you don't take care of your storytellers. Do you value us or not? Will you let us -- help us -- heal this broken world? Or will we all succumb to the darkest worldview, the fear, the isolation, the anger, the violence, the hatred?

We all know how badly teachers are paid, and how under-appreciated. It's so much worse for actors, singers, musicians, dancers, writers, directors, designers. Most of us get paid really badly, not even close to a living wage, and also not consistently. Why? Because "the market" won't support high enough ticket prices to pay the real cost of a theatre or concert seat. Theatres are tax-exempt because they are deemed by the Supreme Court to be inherently beneficial and necessary to the well-being of a community. That story itself is one of particular importance that I try to tell periodically.

But though our fellow humans may need desperately what we storytellers do, though we are in a very real sense the shamans of our tribes, Capitalism does not value what storytellers do as much as it values those who make money from money, creating only wealth, or those who make money from fear, creating only more fear.

There's nothing wrong with getting rich, but a lot of us storytellers spend our days trying to figure out how to not get evicted or how to not get the electricity turned off. Why is that okay? It's even worse now than it was a few years ago. Covid continues to cancel performances even now. Every working performer in America was financially crippled by the pandemic, and psychologically traumatized. None of us emerged unscathed or unchanged.

You know what happens if we lose our storytellers? Back to the Future II. Like America under Trump, but without the laughs.

From a purely personal perspective, you know what's so hard about it all? We give ourselves to the world, to our fellow humans. It sounds melodramatic but it's true. We give ourselves. We use our minds and mouths and breath and bodies and emotions to tell stories that help people bond and learn and grow and connect. It's a monumental task but we take it on over and over, just like generations before us, because something inside of each of us tells us that we have to, that it's important, that people need our stories, that we are fulfilling our calling when we are telling a story, that only then are we our full and true selves, in the act of storytelling.

And what's so hard about it, is that after centuries of stories and storytellers, it's still this hard.

And what's particularly ironic about how I feel is that it sort of parallels the struggle of film director Guido Contini, the main character of the musical Nine, which I'm in the midst of directing. Guido, a barely fictionalized avatar of real life genius filmmaker Federico Fellini, is lost for different reasons, but we're both lost. His obstacles are all internal; most of mine are external. But they all sometimes seem impossible to overcome.

I guess it's easy to understand how we got here and why things are the way they are. But only if we value money over each other. Do we?

Long Live the Storytellers. 

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

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheimclick here.

Other Than That, She's Really a Peach

I'm writing a new book about acting in musicals, a sort of sequel to The ABCs of Broadway Musicals. And as part of that project, I've been re-acquainting myself with all the major acting methods -- Stanislavski, Strasberg, Adler, Meisner, Hagen, the whole gang -- so that I can summarize them adequately and accessibly. I've been reading again about all these teachers and their methods, and I've been watching videos on YouTube of these teachers discussing their methods, and actually teaching students. Zeus bless the Digital Age!

In one video, a teacher was introducing a Meisner exercise, and she mentioned a device she uses to teach her students about the physicality of acting. They watch great movies on mute. The idea is that if the acting is good, you'll still be able to discern relationships, personalities, motivations, and lots more, just from the way the characters stand, sit, move, by how they enter a room, how close they get to others.

It immediately struck me how useful this would be for the women of Nine. Some of these women are well-drawn dramatic characters, some are more sketches or impressions, and they're all images inside Guido's fevered, misogynistic head. And yet, each actor has to find a reality there. Each actor has to think about how her character met Guido, what kind of a relationship they have, whether he treated her badly, what she knows about the other women, how confident she is Guido still wants her, why she's attracted to him, what she wants from him, how much of her self-worth and dignity has he stolen?

Could she be the one to tame him? To domesticate him?

And on top of that, since our story is set in 1963 Venice, Italy, these woman are likely also thinking about are they getting old, are they getting fat, are they still attractive, can they attract Guido, can they get into his movie, might they become a star like Claudia...? Or has their chance passed by...?

And for most of our actors, they have to convey all that to our audience with very little dialogue and very little solo singing. In some cases, very little onstage contact with Guido.

Even worse, for a lot of the show, many of the women are watching the action around Guido, more than taking part in it, and yet they have to stay alive in our story. They have to find a way to watch these episodes in character, to be both inside and outside our story, to convey with their reactions and body language who they are and how they relate to Guido and the other women. Some of these women have clearly had enough of Guido's bullshit, but some of them haven't reached that limit yet...

In the excellent book Training of the American Actor, Carol Rosenfeld writes about the steps acting teacher Uta Hagen devised, in the process of creating a character, things to think about and explore, and one of those steps seems extra relevant to this acting challenge for the women in our show. Here's how Rosenfeld explains Hagen's Step 3, What Are My Relationships?
How do I stand in relationship to the circumstances. the place, the objects and the other people related to my circumstances? We have a point of view, opinion or feeling about almost everything. Becoming conscious of how you stand in relationship to the circumstances and places in which you find yourself helps you make choices for the situations you create for your exercises. Circumstances may make you feel unsure of yourself, extremely self-confident or deeply disturbed. You may detest the situation you are in, or it could make you feel totally safe and protected. Circumstances can throw you off-guard, make you crazy or energize you. You may be in an environment that you know very well and that holds wonderful or sad memories. You might be somewhere that is new, strange, off-putting, cold. intimidating or foreboding. Becoming conscious of how you stand in relationship to the objects (foreign or familiar) in your surroundings, as well as your own possessions, increases your sensory and emotional connection to every object you handle. Becoming more conscious of the cast of characters in your life and how your relationships affect your behavior helps you become more honest and personal in your work.

I can see a lot of value in all of Uta Hagen's steps, but this step is particularly relevant to Nine, a whole show entirely about relationships, in which many of the characters are defined by their relationship to Guido.

In the end, it all comes down to what every contemporary acting method is ultimately aiming for, emotional honesty, acting that comes from the inside. And the key to that is knowing really well the imaginary circumstances of our story, and then living inside our story honestly. That's how our actors will give their characters and our story real life onstage. It's really just pretending. A kind of informed, prepared kind of pretending, but still just pretending.

But wait, there's more. This show Nine is unlike any other show I've worked on. I finally figured out the key to it all today. This is a fundamentally serious, dramatic story we're telling, but Guido, nine-year-old that he still is, sees it all as a comedy. So of course he loves the idea of aligning himself with Casanova, the "loveable rogue" who serially assaulted women long before we called it assault, a literary hero, who by example absolves Guido of his sins. No wonder the film Guido begins to make in Act II doesn't just use the details and women of his real life, he uses them comically. And that is his greatest sin yet, the one thing his women won't accept, a mockery of their surrender to him.

The big overall arc of our story is the process of Guido coming to terms with his life and art, and realizing that, whether or not he's a genius, he has to grow up. And the largest part of that is realizing that women  -- no, that people -- are not playthings, and that using and abusing them isn't funny. It takes losing everyone for Guido to understand.

Nine is amazing. I'm so glad we get tot work on it. We are off on another rich, wonderful, exciting artistic adventure. We can't wait to share it with you.

Long Live the Musical!

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

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheimclick here.


Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2 is one of a handful of semi-fictional artistic autobiographies, by and about a true genius. The others in that category are Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George; Stew's musical Passing Strange; Bob Fosse's All That Jazz; Woody Allen's Stardust Memories; and in an ironic, smartass kinda way, John Water's Cecil B. Demented

And in a manner that can only be called Felliniesque, the original film 8 1/2 and its adaptations now form a wonderful kind of strange loop. The film was adapted for the musical stage in the early 1980s, retitled Nine, won tons of awards, and became an instant classic of musical theatre, originally directed, choreographed, and shaped by Tommy Tune. Then Rob Marshall adapted the musical for the screen. But he chose to make a film adaptation of both the original film and its stage adaptation. Marshall made the stage musical into a new Fellini film, as if Fellini was making a film version of the stage musical Nine.

And I fell completely in love with it.

I've been wanting to work on Nine since I first heard the cast album in 1982. And I've always thought that it would be both a perfect New Line show and an incredible showcase for our incredibly talented and versatile local women actors.

I remember the first time I saw 8 1/2, it was like I had never really seen all that film was capable of before that moment, and now for the first time I saw how much more film could do than what we routinely see from Hollywood. It was like the first time I heard Sunday in the Park, HairMarch of the Falsettos, and Floyd Collins. Each of those experiences felt like I was Dorothy Gale emerging from the sepia and into Technicolor. I've now watched the Fellini film several times over the years, and each time I find more richness in it -- and more comedy. I loved it so much that it moved me to start exploring the other Fellini films, each one of them amazing and wondrous and mind-blowing, in all the most fun ways.

Fun Fact: Fellini gave his film its title as a joke: his lead character was so blocked artistically that his story didn’t even get a real title (its original title was La Bella Confusione), just a number. Fellini had already directed six full-length films and one short, and he had co-directed two films, so this was number eight-and-a-half.

Bonus Fun Fact: Fellini's film Nights of Cabiria is the source for Sweet Charity.

Both the film and stage musical tell the story of genius filmmaker Guido Contini going through a very painful midlife crisis, an artistic crisis, and a complete emotional breakdown -- and all presented as a wildly entertaining, surrealistic romp, all happening inside the head of this troubled, brilliant, creative man. The challenge for Guido is to recognize his toxic behavior and his terrible treatment of the women in his life, all of which has been tolerated by those around him, and to finally, at age forty, Grow Up.

Songwriter Maury Yeston had begun to write Nine in 1973, nearly a decade before it opened on Broadway in May 1982. Yeston (who would go on to write the score for Titanic and half the score for Grand Hotel) was obsessed with the Fellini film. 

But because the musical was no longer actually Fellini’s work, no longer autobiography, the new title Nine referred to the age to which the central character Guido wishes he could return. Yeston began writing songs for a stage version of the film, working with Mario Fratti, who adapted the original Italian screenplay into English. In 1979, a workshop was done with lyricist-director Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors) at the helm. Several new songs were created and the show’s ending was discovered.

In the fall of 1981, Yeston teamed up with director-choreographer Tommy Tune, co-choreographer Thommie Walsh (already immortalized as a character in A Chorus Line), and playwright Arthur Kopit. At that point, several characters had to be cut, including a male producer, his daughter, a critic, and others. The decision was made to cast the show entirely with woman around the one male character, the antihero Guido. Later on, four boys were added to the cast for a flashback. It was then that the overture was written, to be performed vocally by an “orchestra” of women, all the women in Guido’s life, past and present.

Tune staged the show more minimally than any Broadway musical in a very long time, finding at last that inimitable style that marks a Tommy Tune musical. With the entire cast clad in black and a set made entirely of white tile to suggest the spa, the show looked like no other. Tune’s production moved dreamlike in and out of scenes, in and out of songs, in and out of chronological order and conventional storytelling, creating an impressionist musical that challenged audiences and musical theatre traditions.

The show won five Tony Awards out of ten nominations. The wins included best musical, best featured actress (Liliane Montevecchi), best director, best score, and best costumes. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, “In this, his most ambitious show, Mr. Tune provides the strongest evidence yet that he is one of or theater’s most inventive directors – a man who could create rainbows in a desert. Mr. Yeston, a newcomer to Broadway, has an imagination that, at its best, is almost Mr. Tune’s match. His score, giddily orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, is a literate mixture of showbiz and operatic musical genres that contains some of the season’s most novel and beautiful songs. Together, Mr. Yeston and Mr. Tune give Nine more than a few sequences that are at once hallucinatory and entertaining – dreams that play like showstoppers.” He went on to say, “There’s so much rich icing on Nine that anyone who cares about the progress of the Broadway musical will have to see it.”

Nine ran 732 performances. Productions were mounted in several other countries. A concert version was presented at London’s Festival Hall in 1992, with Liliane Montevecchi and Jonathan Price, and then a full production was mounted at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1996. A successful Broadway revival was mounted in 2003 with film star Antonio Banderas in the lead, alongside theatre stars Chita Rivera, Jane Krakowski, and others. That production won Tonys for best revival and best featured actress (Krakowski).

I've been wanting to work on this rich, delicious material ever since I first encountered it. And part of the joy of finally directing it was the fun of casting some of region's strongest, most talented women, some of whom we've worked with before, and quite a few of whom we haven't. And part of the fun of the show is that each character gets a spotlight moment. I can't wait to start blocking this show. Our fearless scenic designer Rob Lippert has designed a cool variation on the original set, and we're staging the action across the middle of our blackbox, with audiences on either side, like we did with Head Over Heels and Atomic. It's going to be very up close and personal, and so much fun!

We've just learned the score but already this cast sounds so wonderful. It's so rare that we get to hear a group of only women, singing four-part harmony. It's gorgeous.

Another adventure begins! I hope you'll share it with us! I'll keep you posted.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Tickets for Nine are on sale now. For more info about the show, click here.

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

P.P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheimclick here.

Sondheimlich Maneuver

I've been writing in-depth essays exploring great musicals for twenty-six years -- almost half my life. When my first book, From Assassins to West Side Story (I got better at titles later on) was published in 1996, nobody was writing like this about musicals, digging into music, lyrics, dialogue, subtext, themes, context, characters, relationships, process, etc. I had found some books that explored non-musical plays that way, but not musicals.

I really didn't know if anyone would want to read my thoughts and opinions, but I wanted to share with folks all the amazing, surprising wonders I find when I dig into these great shows. In fact, I thought maybe only directors would find my first book useful, so I subtitled it The Director's Guide to Musical Theatre; and while it was that, I discovered everybody found it interesting, directors, actors, designers, and lots and lots of casual musical theatre fans. So many people told me they loved the book and it made them enjoy the shows even more after they had read about them. I couldn't imagine a better compliment.

The response to the first book was so tremendous, the publisher asked for another. And then another. I never dreamed in 1996 that I was gong to keep writing. And keep writing. And keep writing. So here I am, twenty-six years later, I've analyzed eighty-five shows, and my tenth volume of essays has been released.

About six months before Stephen Sondheim's death in 2021, I decided I needed to write about the Sondheim shows that I never examined all that closely. And I also realized that in the years since I had written a few essays about Sondheim's shows for my first book, my understanding of those musicals has gotten deeper over time -- and notably, my first couple books were written without the benefit of internet research!

I always write intros to my books, though I call them all "Overture." (Of course I do.) For this new volume, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheim, I wrote the most personal intro I've ever written. Sondheim was so nice to me and to New Line Theatre over the years, and we have had the great privilege of working on several of his shows. We all owe him so much, but I do in particular.

So here's part of the intro I wrote...
I grew up with cast albums in the house. Yes, on LP! I was in love with musicals as far back as I can remember. Up through high school, I knew only the most famous, most mainstream musicals, mostly from the so-called Golden Age, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Jerry Herman. But freshman year in college, my roommate introduced me to Company. It changed everything for me, and Sondheim quickly became my musical theatre hero. As a music major at Harvard, I devoted several semesters of independent studies to Sondheim’s scores. I fell hopelessly in love with Sweeney, Night Music, Merrily, Follies, Whistle, all of them. And one of my professors had been in The Frogs in the Yale swimming pool in 1974!

I had a correspondence with Stephen Sondheim since the early days of New Line. At the start of our second season in 1992, we asked lots of Broadway musical artists to donate items for a special celebrity auction. So many people sent wonderful stuff – Elaine Stritch sent an autographed copy of the “The Ladies Who Lunch” sheet music, Gwen Verdon sent a signed scarf she had worn onstage in a show, Kander and Ebb sent an autographed copy of the sheet music for “New York, New York;” and Hal Prince, Jim Lapine, Leonard Bernstein, Harnick and Bock, and many others donated autographed books, music, Playbills, etc.

Sondheim sent us an autographed copy of the private issue LP of the 1966 Evening Primrose soundtrack, years before it was released commercially. (I really thought about holding that one out of the auction for myself, but I didn’t. I did tape it though.) After the auction, I sent all the celebrities thank-you letters, and I cheekily asked if they would also donate money to us. Sondheim promptly sent a donation. After that first donation, I sent him another thank-you letter and asked him if he’d be an honorary member of our board. He said yes. From that time on, I had a periodic correspondence with him, he did some favors for us, he sent us contributions regularly, and he was pretty much all-round awesome to us. We often heard about the incredible way he treated young writers in New York, but it was just as cool – cooler? – that he was so supportive of our small company.

In the early days of New Line Theatre we did a lot of original revues to ease our audiences into the kind of more aggressive, more adult kind of musical theatre we wanted to produce. Among those early revues, two focused on Sondheim.

In 1993, we presented A Tribute to the Musicals of Stephen Sondheim, with songs chronicling his career, from West Side Story through Assassins. In 1997, we presented Extreme Sondheim, a staged concert of Sondheim’s most intense, most complex, most emotional, most strenuous songs, including “Company,” “Now/Later/Soon,” “Another Hundred People,” “Franklin Shepard Inc.” “Getting Married Today,” “Buddy’s Blues,” “A Weekend in the Country,” “The Miracle Song,” “Me and My Town,” “Someone in a Tree,” “Opening Doors,” “No One Has Ever Loved Me,” “Perpetual Anticipation,” “Move On,” “Hills of Tomorrow,” and quite a few more. It was an insane undertaking. But it was also amazing to work on. It was like a Sondheim master class. And it also functioned as a preview of things to come from New Line.

Our graphic designer at the time, Tracy Collins, who also performed with us, suggested we call our revue Sondheimlich Maneuver: Music and Lyrics So Intense You May Choke: A New Revue of Sondheim at His Sondheim-iest. It's the best title we never used.

In the years following, New Line produced Assassins (three times!), Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Sweeney Todd, Passion, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, and (coming in 2023), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Then back in 2011, it occurred to me one day (the day before Thanksgiving, appropriately, and about a week after seeing the magnificent Follies revival in New York) that I should thank Sondheim, not just for what he had done for us and for me, but for what he had done for our art form, for all the beautiful work he created that we’ve had the privilege of working on. I wanted to make sure I told him how much his work means to all of us, while he was still with us. [You can read my letter here.]

I realized long ago the main reason I love writing my musical theatre books, is the fun I have sharing that thrill of discovery, the joy of finding ever cooler things inside a show that I thought I knew well. It was a happy accident of history that I founded New Line Theatre right as this new Golden Age of Musical Theatre was beginning in the early Nineties. It’s been an amazing ride so far! I’ve written about several of Sondheim’s shows before, but this time, I really wanted to cover his whole career, and get to know those shows and side projects that I didn’t know as well.

It’s hard to believe Uncle Steve is gone. It’s hard to believe we’ll never see another new Sondheim musical. He was America’s Shakespeare, the towering theatrical figure of his century, an artist who changed everything, winner of eight Tonys, eight Grammys, an Oscar, fifteen Drama Desk Awards, five Olivier Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Broadway theatre named after him and a London theatre named for him.

In Thomas Adler’s essay, “The Sung and the Said,” in the collection Reading Stephen Sondheim, he writes:
I will argue, ultimately, that Sondheim is distinct among writers for the American musical stage in that he has a philosophy, an ideology that he continually expresses and deepens throughout his musicals and that raises them above the realm of popular entertainment – though they are, happily, still that – and places them among those works for the American stage that can be said to have not only artistic merit but a literary value as well. . . All the earlier writers of musicals attempt something quite different from what Sondheim undertakes, which is to consistently embody and refine several themes into the rarest of all achievements in this poplar context, a body of thought.

Sondheim lives on, in Bobby and George and Frank and Fosca and so many other characters. His experiments forever changed the theatre and his artistic adventuring profoundly influenced and inspired his successors. And yet writing about these shows now in this new millennium is different. We can’t ignore that Sondheim wrote almost exclusively about white characters; and that his one show about nonwhite characters is problematic. That doesn’t diminish his genius, but it reminds us that stories are always products of the times in which they’re told.

It’s been a blast writing this book, living in these masterpieces, and spending so much time (metaphorically) with the Master. I hope it’s a blast reading it.
It will be hard moving on from this project. But luckily, I get to direct A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum later this year. I. Can't. Wait.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Tickets for New Line's Nine are on sale now. For more info about the show, click here.

P.P.S. To check out all my musical theatre books, including my last book, Go Greased Lightning!, click here.

Reefer Madness Madness

Two years ago I started writing a new show, a wild satire called A Reefer Madness Christmas. It didn't even occur to me that the title would be a problem, since the original 1936 film Reefer Madness is already in the public domain, due to some long-ago screw up with its copyright. Plus, titles can't be copyrighted.

Then a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a lawyer for the two guys who wrote the musical adaptation of the Reefer Madness movie, Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney. Apparently, these two guys have trademarked the phrase, "reefer madness." Even though it's not their intellectual property, even though they took the title from another work, and even though the phrase is a common one (do a search of the phrase on Amazon or Google), they now own it. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I used my title, they would sue me. Coincidentally, though their show first opened in 1999, the registration certificate said the phrase wasn't officially registered in their name until Dec. 27, 2022.

I honestly couldn't believe any of this could be true, so I insisted that the lawyer prove it. But it's true; I saw the certificate and they really own this phrase that isn't really theirs to begin with. Yet one more reason why we have to seriously rethink copyright and trademark in this digital age.

And let's be clear -- my show uses none of the characters or plot from the original film or its musical adaptation, and while the original is set in 1936, my story is set in 1959. My show is more like a smartass retort to Reefer Madness, rather than any kind of sequel.

Still, I grudgingly agreed not to use my title, and I decided to change it instead to A Reefer Magic Christmas, and I updated all the graphics and our website. But nope, the lawyer told me they would also sue me if I used that title. He told me not only could I not use the phrase, "reefer madness," nor either of the two words individually, but I also could not use "similar" words, an intentionally nebulous prohibition, I think. He told me I could make a list of possible titles to submit to Murphy and Studney, and then they would decide which one(s) they'd allow me to use.

Ummmm... No.

I'll come up with another title for my show without their input, thanks anyway. It sucks that I have to do this, but it's no catastrophe.

And yet there is something dreadfully wrong with our intellectual property laws that these two guys can own and restrict someone else's intellectual property, which was in the public domain to begin with.

But that's not the only issue here. These two writers have been harassing us for years. We produced their Reefer Madness in the early 2000s, then years later, they publicly claimed that we hadn't paid them for the rights. Which is a lie. Why would they give us their show for free? It's nonsense.

Then when we produced Heathers, which Murphy co-wrote, he insisted that Samuel French, who licenses the show, force me to shut down this blog. I was writing about the show as we worked on it, like I always do, and though I gushed about the strength of the material, I was very critical at times of the clueless and clumsy off Broadway production. As we worked on the show, we discovered how brilliant and well-constructed that material really is, and yet the off Broadway director had treated the show like it was Nunsense. And I said so. And Murphy tried to stop me from saying so, on my own blog. Ummm... No.

This is the third time these guys have come after us. It's starting to feel like some creepy vendetta. But all is well. After some conversation with my funnier friends, we came up with a strong replacement title -- Jesus and Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas. Honestly, this is probably a better title anyway.

I'm just waiting to get the letter from them telling me they've trademarked Jesus and Christmas... and my character Johnny Appleweed...

Welcome to my world.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, Go Greased Lighting!click here.

The Directing of Cats

During the pandemic, I was looking for new writing projects, and I decided to write a volume of poems about us crazy theatre people, modeled on T.S. Eliot's amazing Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which served as the source for the musical Cats. Eliot's poems were all as much about humans as they were about cats, and mine were too, but in my case, more specifically theatre people, and let's be honest, even more specifically musical theatre people.

I called it Theatre Cats: The Old Producer's Book of Dramatical Cats, and Zak Farmer did illustrations for me. Some of the poems were very silly, but some were fairly serious.

As I get ready to direct Nine, I was thinking about my books opening and closing poems. The opening poem, "The Casting of Cats" is a bit more ironic, while the closing poem, "The Directing of Cats" is a serious "think piece" about the delicate art of directing. As with all the other poems in the book, my hope was that these would pull the curtain back a bit on how theatre really works, and explain just how complex and fragile an operation it can be.

The more I thought about these, the more I wanted to share this last one, "The Directing of Cats." It's about the most important lesson I ever learned as a director -- that each actor has their own process and each actor needs something different from me as director. I hope you enjoy it and find some truth in it.

You’ve learned here of the Actor Cat,
This Catechism clear, so that
You now need no vast Cat archives
To understand what drives their lives.

Yes, now you’ve seen enough to see
Cat Actors aren’t like you and me;
Some Cats are nicer, some are worse—
And now we’ve caught them all in verse!
They can be sane, they can be mad,
And when they’re good, they’re also bad;
They’re very fragile, quick to rage,
Yet bare their souls on sill and stage!
Each Actor Cat has different needs,
And finds their way at different speeds;
Directors need to know all that,
In order to direct a Cat.

The First Rule (which their Union loves):
An Actor Cat requires kid gloves.

No matter how well trained and agile,
Actor Cats can feel quite fragile;
Insecure, they fret and fuss
To stir emotions up for us;
And though the sturm und drang aren’t real,
It still feels real, the whole ordeal!
It’s not just playing Let’s Pretend;
It’s life itself that they expend.

Though all of it’s just Copy-Cat,
Their mind and body don’t know that!
So why, then, excavate the soul,
When that extracts so great a toll?
Well, one sound theory goes as such:
Some Actor Cats just feel too much;
And from that deep repository
They can draw, to tell a story.

The Second Rule, to stave off wrath:
Each Actor Cat has their own path.

So learn this now, and please recall:
With acting, one size won’t fit all!
There’s Cats who must experiment
Full free from all impediment;
And though they stumble, run aground,
They find their way—and they astound!
Some Actor Cats need just, instead,
Which road to take and where to head;
They’ll end up making thoughtful art,
But need a catalyst to start.
And some Cat Actors flail and claw,
And just need you to hold their paw.

The Third Rule is the Rule Supreme:
This sport, The Stage, demands a team.

One can’t forget this fundament:
A show must be a group event.
In contrast to strict hierarchy;
Collaboration is the key!
When all the Cats’ ideas converge,
The richer choices will emerge!
And then you’re on a mystic trip,
Where every Cat has ownership!
Director Cats need never say:
Oh no! That’s wrong! Do it my way!
It’s not so much which Cat’s the Boss—
It’s all the flavors in the sauce!
Sure, it might seem expedient
To use just one ingredient—
To stretch this metaphor, it’s just
That no Cat wants plain pizza crust!
So there you have it, laid out flat.


That's how you direct a Cat.

And now off to a new adventure with Nine!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, Go Greased Lighting!click here.

'Twas a Year Full of New Line, 2022

'Twas a year full of New Line: Pandemic Year Three;
And the Bad Boy was back, to our fervent fans' glee.
Their gratitude grew, with each gutfelt remark,
For letting them gather again in the dark
To be told a story, like we had once done,
Of human adventure and journeys begun.
But we never quite managed to run a whole run!

Back in fall '21, we had opened again,
With a musical written for only two men.
The stage was small-ish, and the audience too,
But we all felt that this was our duty to do --
To help us to heal, spin the stories we need,
To help us connect again, help us succeed
In finding our way home, as Bad Times recede.

Our first Head Over Heels suffered ars interruptus;
Plague shuttered our show with alarming abruptness!
But in March '22, though all broken a bit,
We brought back this heady and healing, smash hit!
Our audience all had to keep themselves masked,
And most folks were happy to do as we asked --
But a handful believed they were thus over-taxed.

We then opened Urinetown, also delayed,
And noticed that this was our Real World portrayed!
The satire felt more like Life than before;
But at least we could laugh at what we can't ignore.
Its government/corp'rate corruption and graft,
In the hands of mad artists, with mad skills and craft,
Revealed the grim truth, yet we laughed and we laughed.

We all feel so lucky that New Line has gotten
To do shows as wackadoo as Something Rotten!
So smart yet so silly, so slyly subversive,
You might be persuaded to find it perverse if
It wasn't so brilliantly, gut-punching funny,
This fable of love and ambition and money,
That dabbles in darkness but winds up so sunny!

This Plague isn't done with us; Life isn't fixed;
Our workaday world is still good and bad, mixed.
But stories still do for us what they do best,
Remind us that we're all a lot like the rest,
Remind us that all of us face the same night;
Our stories connect us all, so that we might
Gather here in the dark to catch glimpses of light.

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

P.S. I started these year-poems on a whim way back in 2013. If you're a glutton for punishment, here are my poems from 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.

P.P.S. If you'd like to contribute to New Line Theatre, just click here.

But the Medicine Never Gets Anywhere Near Where the Trouble Is.

When the pandemic began, none of us had any idea what that would really mean. I remember in March 2020, as we were being shut down, we were speculating about whether we'd have to start rehearsals late for our June 2020 show, and all of us mindlessly assuming that even if we missed our summer show, of course we'd be going ahead with our October 2020 show.

What fools these mortals be!

None of us knew how a freaking pandemic works! I remember not that long ago we were talking about "the end of the pandemic." We talked about all we'll do when we "get back to normal," and "after this is over."

As Rizzo would say, "There ain't no such thing." Covid ain't done with us.

None of this was temporary. Everything that changed -- which is almost everything -- is going to stay changed. Some of that is good; much of it will be crazy and disorienting. I lost several longtime friends during this post-lockdown period, either for baffling, nonsensical reasons or for reasons they refused to reveal. And in each case, they were really ugly and angry and emotional. In hindsight, I wonder if they didn't reveal their reasons because they themselves didn't fully understand them. So many people were broken by the pandemic in so many ways, and sadly, a lot of them don't know they were broken; and they won't be healed until they figure it out.

As Jason Robert Brown once told us, "Nobody told you the best way to steer when the wind starts to blow." (Seriously, did JRB have any idea back in the mid-1990s that Songs for a New World would be relevant essentially forever?)

I got to see firsthand how quickly and easily the pandemic broke me. For the first time in my life I went on antidepressants, and I am sure grateful for that phrase I used to mock: Better Living Through Chemistry. They weren't kidding. All praise be to Paxil and Wellbutrin. Really, the only things that saved me were my piano, my cats, my pot, and writing about musicals.

It was so hard at the beginning. The theatres shut down. People couldn't gather. And for the first time in my life, I realized that everything I do is dependent on people gathering together in public. There is no theatre without people gathering. We theatre nerds often say, "Without an audience, it's just rehearsal." In other words, the audience is an active, integral part of the act of telling a story onstage. Suddenly we were discovering that without an audience or a stage or actors and musicians, it's just words and notes on a page.

Though, let's be clear, words and notes on a page aren't nothin' -- I spent the pandemic putting words and notes on paper -- but that's not theatre. And despite some of the declarations that doing theatre on video to stream online was a "new art form," it was not. And it also wasn't theatre.

As we cautiously emerged from isolation in August 2021 and considered returning the New Liners to the stage again, and then resolving to do a whole season, I saw evidence, over and over again, how broken people really were. Never in our lifetimes had we endured anything like this. We had laughed at poor Will Shakespeare when the theatres got closed down for plague in Shakespeare in Love, but now it was happening to us! We had been so smug, so na├»ve, and coddled by science enough to think there was no such thing as plague anymore.

Or anti-vaxxers. 

We returned in October 2021 with the wonderful two-man musical The Story of My Life, and though our audiences were limited, so we could space the seats out more, our patrons were thrilled to be back, thrilled to see live theatre again, thrilled to know it could be done. We continued with a full season, including Head Over Heels in March 2022; Urinetown in June 2022; and we opened our thirty-first season a couple months ago with Something Rotten!

Looking in from the outside, it may have seemed like we were Back to Normal, but we were nowhere near. We joked that we were more "next to normal," but that wasn't really true either. In addition to our new financial woes, throughout Head Over Heels and Urinetown it became clear that a small handful of of the people we had worked with were different now, changed and yes, broken, by the awful experiences we had all gone through. Though at first their toxic behavior was driving me a bit crazy, I soon realized (being a fierce Law and Order fan) that these folks were likely suffering from some kind of PTSD from the pandemic.

In fact, almost all of us were to one degree or another.

But understanding why so many Americans have PTSD and being able to deal with the manifestations of it are two different things. Though I was sympathetic to these folks, having experienced many of the same things myself, they made every single thing more difficult, more precarious, more triggery. I know some of these folks were just feeling ferociously out of control of their lives, so fixating on things like Covid protocols made them feel more in control. Trying to dictate other people's behavior (especially when it worked) gave them a sense that they were doing something rather than feeling entirely passive and helpless. I complained to a director friend about some of the unexpected abuses other actors and I were suffering through, and he said, "Scott, we're all still broken."

Maybe I knew that deep down, but I needed to hear it. I had to stop waiting for my "normal" life to return. We are all in a New World now. What we used to call Normal is not coming back.

At least JRB left us a roadmap of sorts.

We have to rethink everything now. I mean, everything. Not only the things that pandemic has forced us to rethink -- we have to rethink everything. Art, gender, orientation, race, age, disability, family, school, religion, war, history, capitalism, work, play, fun, marriage, copyright, distance, connection, and so much more. We have our work cut out for us. Are we up to this?

It's funny -- only now as I type this do I recognize that the show I just finished writing, A Reefer Madness Christmas, about a man of the 1950s coming up against the massive cultural changes coming with the Sixties, is pretty much an exact parallel to what we're all going through now.

Write what you know.

We New Lines are currently considering shows for next season, because funding applications are coming up soon, and I always try to think about what the community needs from us, as we choose shows. Right now, in these deeply fucked-up times, I think above all our community needs healing. We need stories that connect us and remind us that we are not alone, and that we are not each other's enemies. And I think we also need comedy. Not empty-calorie comedy. Not Nunsense. No, we need "serious comedies," that make us laugh as they connect us and give us insight and reassure us that we're all struggling, that sometimes, we are all the Other.

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Change is scary to most people, and we're going through enormous changes. The right stories can help us get through this.

As an example of the many changes coming, I genuinely think commercial for-profit theatre may be either fading away entirely or massively transforming itself -- and Broadway will no longer be the center of American theatre. I think the ideas of copyright and intellectual property are going to change hugely in this digital age. And the debate over a Universal Basic Income in the U.S. could transform so many artists' lives for the better.

We're at a pivot point in history, and we have a front row seat, whether we want it or not. Storytellers are the shamans, the healers -- but first we have to heal ourselves. Fasten your seatbelts, it's still going to be a bumpy night.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, Go Greased Lighting!click here.

Droppin' Dimes in the Record Machine: The Roots of Grease

I've written a lot about Grease. It's one of my favorite shows, definitely Top Five. And I think it's horribly misunderstood. No, Sandy does not "become a slut" at the end. I've written a few blog posts about Grease, about how many productions screw it up, about the impressive craft of the writing, even about my love-hate relationship with the live TV version.

I recently wrote a whole book about the show, Go Greased Lightning: The Amazing Authenticity of Grease. In the back of my book, I created a chart of all the Grease songs alongside the real 1950s songs that probably inspired them. But there's a big difference between just knowing what the musical influences are, and hearing the original artists sing those songs. That's what this blog post is about. The Sound of Grease.

Everything about Grease (in its original stage version) is fully authentic; this is no parody or spoof. The characters are based on real people, the scenes are based on real events, and the music is the most authentic of all the elements. The songs in Grease sound exactly like the actual period rock and roll songs that likely inspired the numbers in the show. Sometimes the imitation is clearly intentional, other times probably more unconscious. After all, writers Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs lived their teenage years to this music.

In some cases, the chord changes are so similar that you can sing the Grease song in counterpoint to its source song. Comparing the songs in the show to their period sources illustrates so vividly the surprising authenticity of the Grease score, and it can be great help to actors and music directors who want to get that authentic sound of early rock and roll.

So throw your mittens around your kittens, and awaaaaay we go!


“Alma Mater Parody”

“Johnny B. Goode”

“Roll Over Beethoven”

“School Day”

“Summer Nights”

“Don’t You Just Know It”

“Those Magic Changes”


“Freddy My Love”

“Eddie My Love”

“Tears On My Pillow”

“Da Doo Ron Ron”

“Be My Baby”

“Greased Lightning”


“You Can’t Catch Me”


”Tonight, Tonight”

“Since I Don’t Have You”

“Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”

“The Chipmunk Song”

“We Go Together”

“I’m So Happy”


“Shakin’ at the High School Hop”
(not included on the original 1972 cast album)

“Reddy Teddy”

“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”

“Shake, Rattle, and Roll”

“High School Confidential”

“At the Hop”

“Raining on Prom Night”



“Little Darlin’”

“Lonely Days and Lonely Nights”

“Born to Hand-Jive”

“Bo Diddley”

“Willie and the Hand Jive”

“Beauty School Dropout”

“Earth Angel”

“Alone at a Drive-In Movie”

“The Great Pretender”

“Would I Be Cryin’?”

“Over the Mountain”

“Earth Angel”

“Rock & Roll Party Queen”

“Wake Up Little Susie”

“Come Go With Me”

“There Are Worse Things I Could Do”

“Happy Birthday Baby”

“All Choked Up”


“Great Balls of Fire”


' “We Go Together”

“Oh Gee, Oh Gosh”

The various Grease revivals over the years, populated with big, screlty, Broadway voices, don't understand what makes these songs special. Early rock and roll is a lot like punk -- intentionally rough, unpolished, simple -- as a rebellion against the corporatized mainstream music coming at teenagers in the 1950s. Grease deserves a lot more respect than it gets. Its score is a masterpiece of pastiche, never mocking those original songs, but instead celebrating what made them great.

I'll probably never end my Grease crusade. But as crusades go, it's not a bad one. There are worse things I could do.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including Go Greased Lighting!click here.