Just Like Our Parents

We started the Out on Broadway series in March 1996, brought it back in August 1996, then created Out on Broadway 2000 (aka OOB2K) four years later. It's weird this many years later to return to this series, and even a few of the same songs. The world was so different back then. As I said in my last blog post, when our first edition opened, Will & Grace hadn't debuted yet. When we did OOB2K, not a single state had legalized marriage equality yet, but the Orwellian "Defense of Marriage Act" had been passed.

But we face our share of challenges today, particularly in our cultural adversaries and the politicians who are incapable of feeling empathy for gay Americans until someone in their own family comes out.

It seems each edition of our series is a response to a cultural and political moment, and Out on Broadway: The Third Coming is no different. But to connect back to the the impulses that drove us in 1996 and 2000, I went back to the director's notes I wrote for our programs, and I found lots of value there...

March 1996

Gay men and lesbians have been playing straight characters since time began. They've had to sing about a kind of love they never felt, never able (until recently) to sing about the feelings they actually have. Stars like Danny Kaye, Larry Kert, George Rose, Jack Cassidy, and many others never had a chance to explore in their work the issues they faced in their daily lives.

Gay or bisexual writers, including Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Jerry Herman, Leonard Bernstein, Noel Coward, Lorenz Hart, Arthur Laurents, Howard Ashman, and so many others have had to “transpose” their feelings in order to write for the characters in their shows.

Only a few gay musicals have ever played on Broadway. And though TV and movies are finally accepting gay characters as something more than a punch line, the Broadway musical is much slower to do the same. However, in regional theatres gay issues are being explored in many new musicals by writers like Mark Savage, Linda Eisenstein, Chris Jackson, myself, and others. Two songs from Mark Savage's new musical, The Ballad of Little Mikey will be performed tonight. This spring, an album of songs from gay musicals will be released by AEI Records, including songs from The Ballad of Little Mikey and the gay vampire musical In the Blood, which New Line premiered last season.

So tonight we present the history of Broadway musicals the way it should have been.

Every song you'll hear tonight was chosen for a reason. “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” was written about racism, but its message against intolerance is as relevant today as ever, as religious extremists demonize gays and lesbians. “In My Own Lifetime” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” are particularly potent, reminding us of the all the work we have to do. “Children Will Listen” is a warning to those political and religious leaders who would promote prejudice and fear instead of understanding. And in this explosive election year, “Our Time” and “Everybody's Got the Right” are no longer just show tunes – they are battle cries.

“Everything Possible” is the song we all wish someone had sung to us when we were little, a song that we hope will be sung to children from now on.

Very few of these songs were written in the context in which you find them tonight, but I think you'll be surprised at how easily they work this way. The experiences we're exploring tonight are universal. A love song written for a straight couple fits a gay couple no less perfectly: One lyric sums it all up: “They're writing songs of love, but not for me . . .” Well, tonight these songs are for us all.

August 1996

Well, here we are, back “Out” at the St. Marcus Theatre.

This is the first time New Line has ever done a show a second time. It's the first time we thought a piece was important enough. We decided that if we can reach people this time that we didn't reach the first time, then it's worth doing again.

We didn't realize this show was as special as it is until we put it in front of an audience last March. It's the only gay revue I'm aware of that doesn't make fun of gays and also doesn't ask for pity for gays. It's a very proud, brave, and occasionally political look at being gay in America. This is a show that sees gays as regular people, with the same kind of joy and heartache as everyone else, despite their often unique societal obstacles. And I think that's a big part of what made it so incredibly popular the first time around.

Only a few gay musicals have ever played on Broadway. And though TV and movies are finally accepting gay characters as something more than a punch line, the Broadway musical is much slower to do the same. However, in regional theatres gay issues are being explored in many new musicals by writers like Mark Savage, Linda Eisenstein, Cindy O'Connor & Larry.Johnson, Chris Jackson, myself, and others. Two songs from Mark Savage's new musical, The Ballad of Little Mikey (which New Line will produce in June 1997) will be performed tonight.

We've made some small changes since the last time we were here – a few songs cut, a few added, a few moved. We hope you like the show even better. Very few of these songs were written in the context in which you find them tonight, but I think you'll be surprised at how easily they work this way.

Many of the experiences we're exploring are indeed universal. As Congress passes new (possibly un-Constitutional) laws to exclude gays and lesbians from legal marriage, as Bob Dole and his friends work to prevent us from enjoying other equal rights, as national religious leaders misuse and misquote the Bible to demonize us, this is an important lesson for us all to take with us.

March 2000

When we put together the first Out on Broadway in March 1996, we had no idea that there would be such enormous public demand for more performances that we’d have to bring it back in August of that same year. We never thought there’d be a cast album. And we certainly never thought we’d be doing a sequel four years later.

But here we are.

So much has changed since 1996. Will and Grace is on television every week, getting great ratings, and three more shows with gay lead characters are planned for next season. And for good or bad, gay Americans are every bit as visible as straight Americans on Jerry Springer and the other talk shows.

Gay marriage has become one of the top issues in the country, with the Vermont Supreme Court ordering the state legislature to give gay couples equal rights, with Californians voting on a referendum against equal marriage rights for gay couples on March 7, and with the Hawaii gay marriage case still rumbling despite setbacks. In contrast, a study just released says 2.5 million gay Americans are currently in heterosexual marriages.

The issue of adoption for gay couples is coming before courts around the country. Anti-gay discrimination in groups like the Boy Scouts is being actively challenged in the courts, and in some cases, is being condemned.

As the presidential races heat up, gay issues are on the agenda everywhere you look. Both Al Gore and Bill Bradley are actively courting gay voters. And even the most conservative Republicans are being forced to acknowledge us and address our issues.

And yet, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Wyoming just for being gay. Billy Jack Gaither was murdered in Georgia for the same reason. And they’re not the only ones.

One of the purposes of the original Out on Broadway was to tell gay teens and closeted gay men and women that it’s okay to be gay, that they can be gay and still be proud of who they are, that being gay is not a sickness. With all the increased visibility for gay Americans, perhaps that’s not as necessary today as it was four years ago.

The other purpose of the original show was to demonstrate how alike gay and straight people are, and how alike gay and straight love is. That is still necessary because, even though we are all alike deep down, the world still does not treat us alike. It’s amazing how easy it was for most of these songs, originally written for straight characters, to work in a gay context – but they do, precisely because gay people think and feel most of the same things as their straight friends and families. And that message can’t be spread far enough or fast enough.

So enjoy the show. Laugh along with us, cry along with us, but most importantly, remember that we are your brothers and sisters, parents, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Remember that many of us want to marry. Some of us want to have kids. And all of us want the respect we deserve.

So now here we are in 2017. When we did Out on Broadway 2000, we included a mildly militant piece called "Marry Us," and a song actually written for a gay couple called "Just Like Our Parents." This time, our show will have a married gay couple in the cast.

We've come a long way, but we've also been set back to some extent. And many of our victories are fragile ones. We still need Out on Broadway. We still need to remind ourselves, our friends and families, and our audiences that we are more alike than different, and that we're each basically following the same Hero Myth story.

This new show is divided into five sections, that vaguely chart a gay man's life. Act I includes "Finding Your Place" and "Finding Love." Act II includes "I Do," "I Thought I Did," and "Now What?" And we are very grateful that Jason Robert Brown has given us the rights to open our show with his new song, "Hope," which he wrote the morning after the 2016 election:

I come to sing a song about hope
I'm not inspired much right now, but even so
I came out here to sing a song. So here I go
I guess I think
That if I tinker long enough, one might appear
And look! It's here
One verse is done
The work's begun

I come to sing a song about hope
In spite of everything ridiculous and sad
Though I'm beyond belief depressed, confused and mad
Well – I got dressed
I underestimated how much that would take
I didn't break
Until right now
I sing of hope
And don't know how

So maybe I can substitute "strength,"
Because I'm strong
I'm strong enough
I got through lots of things I didn't think I could
And so did you
I know that's true

And so we sing a song about hope
Though I can't guarantee there's something real behind it
I have to try to show my daughters I can find it
And so today –
When life is crazy and impossible to bear –
It must be there
Fear never wins
That's what I hope
See? I said "hope."
The work begins

Yes, the work begins again, and our show is part of that work. I hope you can share it with us.

Long Live the Musical!

Out on Broadway: The Third Coming

Out on Broadway: The Third Coming is the third installment of something I never expected to have a second installment.

Back in 1996, I put together an evening of theatre songs to be sung from a gay perspective -- no rewriting other than gender words -- and we called it Out on Broadway. OOB, for short. Without rewriting anything, we gave songs like "We Kiss in a Shadow" from The King and I, and "In My Own Lifetime" from The Rothschilds entirely new context and new resonance. The show had very little staging, no "costumes" really, and just a black stage with a piano and a couple stools. Looking back, I think my model was the original Side by Side by Sondheim.

The show sold out the run in March, so we brought it back for another sold-out run in August, with a couple tweaks to the song list.

A few years later, our cast album for the original OOB was finally being released (yes, you read that right, we made a cast album!), and it occurred to me that a second edition would be fun, so I created Out on Broadway 2000, quickly dubbed by us OOB2K. This time we did a few songs from the first show, but found a lot of new ones.

Then last year, talking about New Line's season, our associate artistic director Mike Dowdy-Windsor mentioned Out on Broadway -- could we do another one? The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Twenty-one years after the first one debuted, we need Out on Broadway right now more than thought we would. But what to call this third chapter? Of course -- Out on Broadway: The Third Coming. What else?

Anybody who's offended by the title would be offended by the show too, so...

Again, we've found a few of our favorite songs from the other two shows (like the impossibly beautiful "Everything Possible"), and added new songs that weren't even written yet in 2000. As the title suggests, we will explore religion, but the main topic of the evening is just to take a look at gay lives and gay relationships, more than anything, to reveal how much like our straight counterparts we are.

And yes, because this is a very personal piece of work for all of us, it is narrowly about the gay male experience; but just as the Japanese found such cultural resonance in Fiddler on the Roof, the very act of these five gay men singing these songs that were written for straight characters (though often gay actors) proves the universality -- both of the songs and of our lives.

When we did the original OOB in 1996, Will & Grace wasn't on the air yet, and in fact, the odious, Orwellian-named Defense of Marriage Act was passed just a month after we brought OOB back for an encore run that August. Even for our second edition in 2000, gay people still didn't have equal marriage rights anywhere in America. It's a different world now. But it's still a world that needs to hear our voices, maybe right now more than ever.

As I was going over the song list for this third edition one last time before rehearsals started, I realized there were a couple songs that didn't feel right, and I realized that with the first two editions of OOB, there were quite a few funny songs, but the overall tone was relatively serious. I had started this edition with a big wacky opening and I decided that was wrong.

Now our show will start with Jason Robert Brown's new song "Hope" (he gave us permission to use it in the show!), and then we'll go back to the earliest feelings of being Other, with the wonderful song "Mrs. Remington" from The Story of My Life. The first act of our show will (sort of) trace the life of a modern American gay man. Act Two will explore gay relationships.

The cool part is that, because we're using mostly songs that were written for straight characters, the very idea that gay men are singing them about their own lives with no alterations, proves how much alike we all are, how truly universal human emotions are. A straight friend asked if he'd feel "left out" at our show. Exactly the opposite is true. Our straight friends and families will find resonance in every song, because almost every song was originally written for them.

Which is the whole point of creating the Out on Broadway series in the first place.

I wanted a new cast for this edition. This cast we have now is more diverse in age and we have an actual married gay couple in the cast. But to connect back to our earlier work, I asked back Keith Thompson (who you may have seen as Jerry Springer in our Jerry Springer the Opera), who will be the only actor to do all three editions. He does Sincere really well.

Since we've been doing these shows, an annual event has popped up in New York called Broadway Backwards, an evening of songs written for men but sung by women, and vice versa. I still hate that word Backwards in the title. It makes it seem like there's something wrong or mistaken about crossing gender lines. It's not wrong; it's just different. Which is the point of Out on Broadway.

We've put together a terrific song list for our show. If you've seen the last two editions, you'll love what we've kept and you'll also love the new gems we've found...

I don't want to give away our song list, but I will tempt you by saying that we have songs from Hamilton, Heathers, Kinky Boots, Ragtime, The Book of Mormon, Into the Woods, Songs for a New World, Cry-Baby, Chicago, Follies, Cabaret, A New Brain, The Wild Party, Bye Bye Birdie, City of Angels, Dreamgirls, March of the Falsettos, Once Upon a Mattress, Nine, Company, The Robber Bridegroom, Ordinary Days, Tell Me on a Sunday, and that's only a partial list...

This is going to be a much faster rehearsal process than we're used to, but I don't foresee a lot of stress. It will be really easy to stage, since there will be very little staging, there's no band to worry about, no costume changes, no props. Just our five guys, Dominic, Mike, Ken, Sean, and Keith, a piano player (music director Nate Jackson, our token straight guy), and some of the greatest songs you'll ever hear, from throughout the history of our art form.

What could be better than that?

We're only running this show for three weeks, and we expect to sell out, so get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

There's a Road We Must Travel

I recently came across a surprising article called, "Should There Be All-White Productions of Hairspray?"  Talk about click-bait! I was dying to read this and see what the hell it was about. Of course there shouldn't be all-white productions of this show about race in America, so who's asking this question...?

Then I read the article. and to my astonishment, the show's writers and their licensing agent Music Theatre International are both okay with this. In fact, for all-white productions of the show, MTI provides this letter to put in the program:
Dear Audience Members,

When we, the creators of HAIRSPRAY, first started licensing the show to high-schools and community theatres, we were asked by some about using make-up in order for non-African Americans to portray the black characters in the show.

Although we comprehend that not every community around the globe has the perfectly balanced make-up (pardon the pun) of ethnicity to cast HAIRSPRAY as written, we had to, of course, forbid any use of the coloring of anyone’s face (even if done respectfully and subtly) for it is still, at the end of the day, a form of blackface, which is a chapter in the story of race in America that our show is obviously against.

Yet, we also realized, to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the color of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a “politically correct” one.

And so, if the production of HAIRSPRAY you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn’t match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of “suspension of disbelief” and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully, have a great time receiving it!

Thank You,
Marc, Scott, Mark, Tom & John

As in Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell, and Tom Meehan, the creators of the show. Wow... so... um... what do we do with that?

And John Waters also signed the letter, the guy who wrote and directed the original film, who actually lived through the cultural moment Hairspray describes. Even if we can dismiss Shaiman, Wittman, O'Donnell, and Meehan, can we dismiss Waters, who's writing from his own experience...?

Then again, once you really starting thinking about all this, it just gets more complicated. After all, as progressive as Hairspray feels, it's still true that the black folks in the story can't get their Happily Ever After until the "white savior" steps in on their behalf...

So I did what I often do with complex theatre issues and questions -- I posted the article, both on New Line's Facebook page and in our St. Louis Metro Area Theatre group, and asked folks what they thought. That's when an even bigger surprise hit me...

In the Metro group, everyone was adamantly against the idea of a white actor playing a black character, and the actors of color who commented felt understandably hurt by this; but no one seemed  to know how to grapple with the fact the writers disagree with them. That's what's hard for me. These four white guys write an insightful piece of theatre about race, but they also make this decision that suggests that they don't understand the issues around race after all, a decision that really upsets black theatre artists.

On the New Line Facebook page, people started posting angry, abusive, insulting, condescending comments about what a stupid question it is (even if the show's own creators don't think so), and how bad New Line looks for bringing it up -- even though we didn't endorse the decision, just shared the article. The writer of the article and I both agree that we don't like the idea at all, but we can't just dismiss entirely the creators' opinions, can we?

Honestly, I could tell from the comments on New Line's page that most of the people commenting had not read the article, so they probably didn't know that the article (and I) agreed with them. I could also tell that most of them were white and most of them hadn't really thought much about race or the incredibly complex set of issues surrounding race. They just had a knee-jerk reaction and, like too many people on Facebook, commented on an article without actually reading it first.

Best way to look like a fool.

The big takeaway from the article for me is that this shit is complicated. And one sentence posted on Facebook does not resolve or explain it. My big takeaway from the reaction to the article is that most white people don't really think much about race and they/we/I don't understand the issues nearly as well as they/we/I think.

One local black woman, Jasmine French, wrote very insightfully about this in the metro St. Louis group:
And yes, [black actors] can say with a straight face that we understand the show better than the writers... When it comes to the black characters, the writers were coming from a place of observation... They and their loved ones weren't in the shoes of those black characters... My grandmother always talks about when the schools integrated. When family would travel to visit her and how everyone would wait up for them, scared that the police or KKK caught them... My grandfather barely speaks on what he saw (he's from Alabama so we can all just picture how peachy that was). I sang "I know Where I've Been" for my grandparents, for the civil rights movement, for the black lives matter movement. The writers wrote it for ticket sales. Its a wonderful song, don't get me wrong, but just because they wrote about black characters doesn't mean they understand a black person's experience, and them attaching that letter co-signing and allowing this is proof that they don't.

Like I said, this is complicated stuff.

We just announced New Line's next season, which will include the classic satire Anything Goes, but that show's "Chinese converts" pose some tough questions as well. Their portrayal in the script is borderline racist, and there's a long creepy history of white actors playing these two Chinese guys, which I knew we could not do. We're still figuring out a way to get the plot point across without being unintentionally racist. I think we may have a decent solution, still thinking about it...

Bottom line, we'll never fully understand or solve the issues around race in America unless we can have a conversation about them. But clearly this article was too provocative..

So I finally deleted the post and the link to the article on the New Line page. The conversation was shut down by people who weren't interested in thinking these complicated questions through. In contrast, in our Metro St. Louis group, everybody was against the idea, but they had a conversation. Yes it got emotional (as would be expected), but not nasty.

Personally, I would not go see an all-white production of Hairspray. I hate the idea, on both a practical and an artistic level. But I don't know what to do with the creators' position. These guys obviously have thought through these issues, while writing the show, so I can't just dismiss them.

Not every issue is clear. Most aren't. And those are the ones most worth thinking and talking about...

No answers here...

Maybe we should let one of the show's writers have the last word. Marc Shaiman wrote this to The Huffington Post about an all-white production of Hairspray in Texas in 2012:
A recent article out of Plano Texas reported of a children’s theatre production of HAIRSPRAY that featured not a single black actor.

Many years ago, when MTI started preparing for the release of HAIRSPRAY for licensing to regional, community and children’s theatre, the subject of 'color-blind casting' was hotly debated. Starting the discussion with 'absolutely no production can exist without actors who are the race of the characters,' I was asked by a rep of MTI 'Ok...what about in Japan?.' 'Oh...' I replied.

'How about South America? Scotland? Sweden?' they said. 'Oh...' I replied.

I then remembered when Scott & I went to his summer stock alma mater when they performed HAIRSPRAY. Up to Vermont we drove only to see two Asian actors in Velma Von Tussle’s 'Nicest Kids In Town.' This was a company of young actors put together to put on a bunch of shows that summer. Were we to stop the production because it was unrealistic that Velma would allow Asian teenagers to be on The Corny Collins Show? Would that not be a form of racism?

I thought back of when I musical directed a community theatre production of WEST SIDE STORY in Plainfield NJ in the early 70’s. 'Anita' was played by a African American (a beautiful woman named Audrey) who was probably in her 40s. And she was, probably, the only non-white in the cast. Should we not have been allowed to tell this story of the consequence of bigotry. Should Audrey not have been allowed to play Anita because she was black? Or 40?

By the way, the kid who played Tony was REALLY cute.

I have grown to realize that when you write a show — particularly one you are lucky enough to see have a long life — you are, in effect, giving birth to a child. And you try your hardest to teach that child what’s right, instill good values — and a sense of humor — and then, when the time comes, send it out into the world. My mother and father raised me right, but would they be proud of every single choice I have made in my life since leaving home? Probably not. But they did their best, I do my best and we authors of HAIRSPRAY do ours.

A few years ago, we were horrified when pictures appeared online of a one weekend only bootleg production of our show in Italy that had people in full blackface. Really terrible images. By the time we saw the photos, the production had come and gone but we were put on red alert to what some people out there might do. So, we authors wrote a program letter that acknowledges that not every community on earth has the correct racial make-up to portray the characters in HAIRSPRAY as written. But that we did not feel it was correct to tell an actor they are incapable of portraying a character and hopefully moving an audience by inhabiting that character, regardless of their skin color. Which, ironically, is a huge part of the message of HAIRSPRAY. But that blackface was forbidden. Who knew we would even have to say that?

We also stress to every group that licenses it that the best solution is to look outside their community until every avenue is exhausted. There are literally (and lucky for us) thousands of productions out there. It is simply impossible to police every single one but MTI does a remarkable job. As do the folks who license it throughout the world.

I would ask for everyone to consider what I am saying here before assuming that greed and only greed has led to the decision to allow HAIRSPRAY to be performed to the best of the ability of each troupe that takes it on. This is an ongoing learning process, and we authors are doing our best to spread the right message and learn the lessons each production and each year brings us.

Marc Shaiman

Is it okay or is it racist to let a black woman play Anita in West Side Story? Is it okay or is it racist to allow a white woman to play Motormouth in Hairspray? Two very different questions, I think. In a cultural vacuum maybe the two are the same. But we don't live in a cultural vacuum...

I'll leave it there for now. But I won't stop thinking about this... and neither should you.

Long Live the Musical!

You Never Know When, Where, and How

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!

Makin' Music to Make You Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!

Nothin's as Sweet as the Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, schadenfreude-sweet...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!

Something Dirty on the Whole Who's-Who

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's the reason I read.
It's an animal need.
I don't pick up the paper
For the sports or the news;
Those ain't
The sport
That I choose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schadenfreude in the first degree.

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

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

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

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

And that's the crux of it. Schadenfreude. Misery loves company. And then the music bursts forth in a jazz version of a primal scream:
Got a hunger to feed,
Got a hunger and a thirst,
Gimme, gimme some dirt,
Take me down in the dirt!
It's an animal need!
Give it to me in the First

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!

On and On and On It Goes

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

All those thing are present in Sweet Smell.

And the cultural backdrop is almost as vivid a character as the four leads. The show is full of references to famous stars (Richard Burton, Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra) and politicians (J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. Joseph McCarthy), actual clubs (The Stork Club, El Morocco, The Blue Angel), pop culture phrases ("I'd walk a mile for a Camel [cigarette]," "I Dood It"), even actual scandals of the moment (rumors that Adlai Stevenson was gay).

For a while, mid-century, Americans devoured gossip about famous people more ferociously than at any other time before or since. Sure, that's always been a part of our culture, but there was a "Golden Age."

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

And it worked like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that makes it really easy to destroy people.

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!

Jazz Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But musicals are about emotion, right?

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

After all, this is a Faust story.

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

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

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

We just have to get out of the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

The Sweet Smell of Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another wild, awesome adventure!

Long Live the Musical!