12 Movies That Should Be Stage Musicals

We are still in the midst of an incredibly fertile time for our art form, a period that started in the mid-1990s and is still going strong. I call it the New Golden Age.

Part of what's wonderful about our art form right now is the tons of new work being created all the time, both by established writers and teams, and by newcomers, both in New York and out across our country in regional theatres and small alternative companies.

New Line has produced several world premieres during our history, and we'd always love to find some more. And though entirely original musicals are awesome, many of our favorites are based on other sources -- Heathers, Rent, The Wild Party, American Idiot, Hands on a Hardbody, Night of the Living Dead, etc.

So here's a list of ten movies that I wish some really great writers would adapt for the musical stage. Most of these would make pretty fucked-up musicals, but there's nothing wrong with that...

And we'd produce all of them!

First on my list, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is one of my favorite movies of all time, a quirky, wild, bizarre, but totally straight-faced sci-fi-rock-comedy, centered on the rock singer / brain surgeon / crime fighter Buckaroo Banzai and his band the Hong Kong Cavaliers, with John Lithgow in an amazingly over-the-top performance as Dr. Emilio Lizardo, who's actually an alien. The awesome backstory here is that Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast wasn't actually fiction; it really happened. But in order to keep the alien invasion secret, they covered it up by pretending it was just a radio play. And now aliens from the Eighth Dimension are living among us! The guys who wrote Bat Boy really need to work on this...!

There are quite a few more on my list, but rather than try to explain why each of these quirky, wonderfully unique movies are cool and why they would make good musicals, I'm going to let them speak for themselves, through their trailers. Just imagine the possibilities...

And remember, the thing that makes a story ripe for musicalization is its emotional content. The more a story is centered on emotion, the better musical it will make, because music is the most powerful emotional language. But also remember, love isn't the only emotion...

Buckaroo Banzai

Phantom of the Paradise

Myra Breckinridge


Hamlet II

Valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

The Night That Panicked America

Wonder Boys

Cold Turkey

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

A Guide for the Married Man

Whaddya think? I would love to see the writing teams behind Bat Boy, Urinetown, Bukowsical, Atomic, Night of the Living Dead, Cry-Baby, and Lizzie tackle some of these. Wouldn't you?

Long Live the Musical!

A World of Pure Imagination

For the last 27 years, I've been watching and promoting the St. Louis theatre community, and it's grown and matured and diversified in so many wonderful ways in that time. It's been so cool to watch us evolve into what we are now, and to see where we're headed from here.

It's an exciting theatre scene, with an incredible range of experiences to offer, quite often created by brilliant, fearless theatre artists.

But four or five times during that period, someone has come to town and told us all -- sometimes more explicitly, sometimes more subtly -- that the rest of us making theatre don't really know what we're doing (we do), that St. Louis is behind the times (we're not), that St. Louis theatre artists don't know as much about theatre as people in New York or Chicago (not true), that the work this new person or group is doing is profoundly new and unprecedented (it rarely is), that only these outsiders have the full truth (they don't) and they will save our city and our theatre community (they won't) with the wisdom the rest of us sorely lack (we don't).

Usually this emerges from a scary mix of hubris and ignorance. It's rare that these folks actually take time first to get know what our community offers and the dozens of active theatre companies here; they just open fire. Usually they have worked with some teacher or group who's taught them some very cool things, but now they think only that teacher's ideas are worthy, that these ideas have never occurred to anyone else, and that all opposing opinions are stupid and misinformed. These folks think they've achieved full artistic enlightenment (they haven't).

Perhaps their biggest problem is they don't know the most important thing about making art: there are millions of answers, not just one.

I remember one guy who came to town and started a company called Broadway On Your Doorstep. He declared that he was going to show the rest of us how to properly market theatre and build an audience. We all giggled at his buffoonery. Within a year, the company had folded and he had disappeared with the last performance's box office receipts.

More recently, someone moved here, announced the creation of an "immersive theatre company," and then proceeded to tell us all repeatedly that past productions of immersive theatre in St. Louis weren't really immersive. Without having seen them. She insisted that her definition of what's "immersive" is the only legit one; that what other people may think is wrong, and that her company is the only company doing "truly" immersive work here.

It's not.

Many of us were both amused and annoyed. For the record, there have been quite a few pieces of immersive theatre in St. Louis, including one of the coolest shows I've ever seen, Trash Macbeth. But that doesn't count because then she couldn't be the first and only.

This has happened periodically over the years. We listen to newcomers like this pontificate, as they tell us how woefully backward we are, we watch them alienate a big part of the community, and we laugh at them. Usually the work these people do is mediocre (which might explain the desperately overblown rhetoric), though once in a while, the work is actually really good, and you just have to separate it from its pontificator.

Now, in all fairness, I sometimes get criticized for having strong opinions myself, and that criticism is sometimes legit. But I never claim that only I understand musicals, that only I am bringing contemporary musical theatre to town, that only I am privy to the Great Secrets...

I often have strong opinions about theatre because I think about it a lot. Pretty much all the time. I've written six books about musical theatre, I've written nine musicals, and I've directed over a hundred musicals over the last thirty-six years.

I have an informed opinion and yet still, I usually don't offer that opinion unless I've really thought it through. If I haven't, I'll post articles and ask for opinions. Often opinions are offered that really illuminate the topic for me. I have learned so much about the issues surrounding race from the people on Facebook. And there's so much I have yet to learn, about theatre, about psychology, about audiences, about our changing culture, about race and gender and orientation. It's a complicated world.

So why do people feel compelled to act like there's nothing else they can learn?

Still, when I put my opinions on art out there in public, particularly if I state them strongly, and particularly if my opinion is outside the mainstream, there are lots of people on social media who can't wait to start a fight. And more often than not, they want to fight over something they inferred from what I wrote, rather than something I actually wrote. But like a dog with a bone, they cling fiercely to their outrage, even though they're arguing against phantoms...

Recently, I posted in the St. Louis theatre group that musical theatre actors ought to think about taking dance classes -- not to become dancers, but just to get more comfortable with and more in control of their bodies, that it can make a real difference. I've said this in the past to several actors, and I felt like more people should hear it. Dozens of people thought my post was great, and several local choreographers thanked me for saying so.

But a couple people were deeply wounded because they thought my post implied that they're not already great onstage, that they might have room for improvement, that continuing to learn is a good thing, that even top professionals keep studying their craft. What was I thinking? One person essentially told me that my post said he should never perform in a musical again. (It didn't.) One woman reacted with an Angry emoji. In fact, she was so Angry that she took the time that afternoon to put Angry emojis on everything I posted in the group for the previous couple days, including a post about how The Muny wants people's "Muny stories" for their big anniversary next year.

Yeah, that damn Muny would make me angry too! She and her emojis sure showed me! I'm thinking maybe she was scared by a choreographer when she was a child...?

Such is the internet.

Still, for those of us making art, few things are more important than thinking about it, talking about it, debating it, and Facebook is a great forum for that. And whatever drawbacks that may have, it still has great value. So I'll keep talking and writing and trying to figure it all out.

Until next time...

Long Live the Musical!

It Was Great When It All Began

What does a theatre company owe to our art form, and to the people who love our art form?

Thoughtfulness and artistry. Those of us making theatre, those of us given the great honor of being the storytellers, we all need to respect the material, and not impose our own agenda upon it. I've seen so many productions that "bring something new" to an already brilliant show by misunder­standing and short-circuiting what the show is really about, and imposing upon it a nonsensical period, setting, or other High Concepts

Por ejemplo...

As I've written beforeRocky Horror has to be set in the early 1970s because it's really specifically about how Americans reacted to the Sexual Revolution of the late 60s and 70s. Tommy has to be set in post-World War II London, because it's really specifically about Western Civilization finding itself spiritually lost after the war, while drowning in postwar conspicuous consumption. When you change the setting of these stories, either explicitly or through set and costume design (the biggest warning sign is the random use of Steampunk), you betray the work, its authors, your audience, and our art form.

We may see resonance in The Rocky Horror Show for our own times, but the more specifically it lives in the seventies, the easier it can serve as a metaphor for today, allowing us to stand back from our own times and see them objectively. Frank is presented as a glam rock star because that was the only period of rock and roll during which gender was both fluid and irrelevant (the same reason Hedwig, of The Angry Inch fame, finds her home in that subgenre). The dissolution of gender roles was one of the things straight America feared the most during the Sexual Revolution. Frank’s lack of clear gender is his real monstrosity, which is why it’s always a mistake for productions to re-imagine Frank as anything other than a glam rocker.

It's not just about drag; it's about gender in our culture.

To take the seventies and its issues out of Rocky Horror both emasculates it and short-circuits its social satire. No one working on the 2000 Broadway revival seemed to notice that the leather and S&M themes in the costumes went exactly opposite to O’Brien’s original intentions of innocent, campy, goofy sexuality. Rocky Horror is not soft porn; it’s a satiric cartoon of sexuality at a particularly clumsy time and place in American history. But director Christopher Ashley and his designers didn’t understand that.

Only the Wall Street Journal could still see Rocky’s smarts behind all the distractions, and its reviewer Amy Gamerman wrote, “The carnival atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Show is so enveloping that it takes awhile before you notice how clever the show itself is – a smartly calibrated blend of salty, sweet and sarcastic, with its pierced tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.”

Rocky is a brilliant, insightful social document, and the directors and actors who don't get that are missing everything that's really wonderful about the show.

After all, modern-day Puritans weren’t the only ones who thought the Sexual Revolution was a bad thing. Others disliked it because they felt this new movement took all the mystery and magic – and most important, the romance – out of sex. In Rocky Horror, Eddie’s song “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?”(aka “Hot Patootie”) addresses this issue of how the hippie movement and the Sexual Revolution "ruined" everything. There’s even a reference to the change (for the worse, in Eddie’s opinion) in American pop culture and music, away from the romance of 1950s rock and roll, and toward the politics and disenfranchisement and nihilism of 1960s acid rock, embodied in the image of rock icon Buddy Holly’s premature death. This song is far from the pointless interruption of the show that some people claim.

You'll always look foolish if you condemn Grease, Hair, ot Rocky Horror as empty-headed silliness. Just because you may not see the substance doesn't mean it's not there...

Eddie’s song is a pointed commentary on the way the Sexual Revolution (in the person of Frank) was changing sex and romance in America (in the person of Columbia), a last, metaphorical stab at stopping the tide of the Sexual Revolution, and a final warning as the show’s first half comes to a close that Brad and Janet’s world is gone. Frank and the Sexual Revolution are too strong, and they silence forever the simplicity and purity of 50s rock and romance through Frank’s act of murdering Eddie, in effect also shutting the door forever on Brad and Janet’s old-fashioned world of sexual innocence.

This is also a theme addressed, though more subtly, in the show’s opening, “Science Fiction Double Feature.” A close reading of this lyric shows a real longing for the innocence of the 1950s, when sex was all subtext and metaphor. The song starts by taking us back to that idealized time when movies told Americans what was good and bad, right and wrong, acceptable and “deviant.” And they told us all this very carefully and indirectly. But subtextual sexuality couldn’t stay hidden forever. Rock and roll would emerge, alongside drive-in movies, and these forces would change sex forever.

Which is the central through-line of Grease, by the way.

This opening song in Rocky Horror sets up the central conflict of the show, though like the movies it celebrates, it does so subtly. It positions open, overt sexuality as not just a threat, but also a despoiler of the innocent, sweet, teen sexuality of the 1950s, a kind of innocence that existed more on the screen than in the back row of the local movie house.

In this song, O’Brien is talking about the very center of the culture of the fifties: the nexus of sex, drive-ins, and rock and roll, the forces that were changing America in profound ways. And a big part of the drive-in experience was low-budget science fiction, often in double features. “Science Fiction Double Feature” is O’Brien’s statement of purpose. This will be a story about the (false) moral perfection of the 1950s as it slams up against the wild explorations of the Sexual Revolution, here rendered "in the back row."

Rocky Horror explored American sexual hang-ups, the excesses of the Sexual Revolution, and the sometimes cruel myth of the American Dream. It used as its vocabulary pop culture icons like Charles Atlas and muscle magazines, Frederick’s of Hollywood, old sci-fi movies with scantily clad women, horror movies with barely sublimated sexual fantasies, glam rock with its blurring of gender lines – all icons that represented the history of Americans hiding sex behind other things.

And perhaps it’s Rocky’s underlying condemnation of America’s sexual puritanicalism and hypocrisy that keeps the show relevant today. Rocky satirizes sex in America by personifying in Brad and Janet the two responses American society had toward the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, and the revolution itself personified by the gender-vague, pansexual Frank N. Furter. In the real world, half of America (Brad) responded to the Sexual Revolution by fighting even harder than before to stop the progression of sexual freedom, to demonize homosexuality, to condemn sexual independence in women, to blame all of America’s ills on sex, to brand (or rebrand) otherwise healthy expressions of sexuality as dirty and inappropriate. The other half of America (Janet) responded with an almost manic sexual celebration and a kind of aggressive experimentation that today may seem outrageous. Both reactions in the real world probably made the early stages of the AIDS pandemic worse than it should have been. And Rocky Horror rightly satirizes both reactions. Both sides went too far.

You can't transplant this story to another cultural context.

The Rocky Horror Show is about a time in America when our nation stood at a crossroads. Sexual oppression was ending (or at least, beginning to fade) and America had to decide how it would move forward. But neither the people who celebrated this new era or the people terrified by it acted responsibly; neither side caused AIDS, but both sides helped it spread. Of course, Rocky Horror is not about AIDS, but it is about consequences. It was written in 1973, but it is about sexual politics in America then and now.

Watching it today, we can see a moment in time when it wasn’t yet too late, when the devastation of a generation of innocent men and women should not have been inevitable. We can love the music, laugh at the jokes, and sing along with “The Time Warp,” but we should never forget that Rocky Horror is about something.

Something very specific.

You wouldn't set Grease in the 80s (although the 1994 revival tried), so don't don't do it to Rocky. It's not just a sex farce or a drag show. Why some directors feel the need to impose a "vision" or a metaphor on shows is beyond me. Just tell the fucking story. And this story is about America in the early 1970s, a moment so sui generis there is no adequate substitute.

So let's do "The Time Warp" again and again, but let's leave the leather harness at home.

Long Live the Musical!

Funny Girl, Whistle, and Fiddler, Oh My!

I"m very cuspy.

I was born in 1964, right on the cusp between the Baby Boomers (1946-64) and Generation X (1965-1984), though I think I'm really about 30% Boomer and 70% Gen Xer. I was also born on the cusp between Aquarius and Pisces. In fact, not long ago, some "experts" re-figured the zodiac to account for calendar errors centuries ago, and though I've always been a Pisces, in the "new" zodiac, I'm an Aquarius.

And since I'm crazy about Hair, I LOVE THAT.

I was also born on the cusp between the Rodgers & Hammerstein era (1943-1964) and the Sondheim era (arguably 1962-1994). The year I was born, Broadway welcomed a really old-fashioned book musical Funny Girl; a whacked-out Sondheim experiment (maybe the first neo musical comedy), Anyone Can Whistle; one of the last of the massive old-school musical comedy hits, Hello, Dolly!; the last of the great R&H-style shows, Fiddler on the Roof, which was also sort of a new-ish concept musical; and the pre-Broadway production of a genuine, full-throttle concept musical Man of La Mancha, which would come to New York the following year. And on top of everything else, that was the year the seriously fucked-up (sort of) musical Marat/Sade opened in London.

That was a hell of a year in musical theatre, from the most conventional to Really Fucking Weird. Very cuspy.

I founded New Line Theatre on a cusp, in 1991, after the relative wasteland of musical theatre in the 1980s and right at the front of a new move toward more personal, more artistic, less commercial -- and less Broadway-centric -- musical theatre. New Line was founded the year after Assassins debuted, before Floyd Collins, Songs for a New World, Violet, Noise/Funk, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Hedwig, A New Brain, etc.

I didn't know it then, but New Line was born right on the cusp between a Dark Ages for our art form, and the new Golden Age we still find ourselves enjoying and expanding.

And in perhaps understandable parallel to that, I find myself personally on the cusp between pre-1990 musical theatre and post-1990 theatre. I love the old shows, though as I have confessed publicly, I am just through with the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. I appreciate them for what they were and what they did, but they seem so old-fashioned, so pre-ironic, so tone-deaf to today's complex world. I can't relate to a character who sings, "Younger than springtime are you." Who is this guy? Yoda?

After all, the dream ballet in Oklahoma! was originally conceived as a circus. Laurie's torn between two men, one obviously dangerous, so she smells some smelling salts, falls asleep, and dreams of a circus? It's sorta cute that neither Dick nor Oscar thought Laurie might dream about... oh, I don't know... SEX.

But I still love most of the Jerry Herman shows, the later Lerner & Loewe shows, almost all the Kander & Ebb and Harnick & Bock shows. And you know the biggest reason why? They have irony. That's a been a part of our national culture since the 1960s, and it's a part of our national fabric now. R&H shows are conspicuously missing that, and so they seem hopelessly naive and clueless to me. But these other writers I list here all understood and artfully deployed irony throughout their work.

Still, if I had my choice between Dolly and Bat Boy, I take Bat Boy.

And yet...  It seems musical theatre artists younger than me don't know the older shows much, other than the Big Names, which means they don't know our history. And I do think that's unfortunate. As with any art form, knowing how we got here is valuable information. How can you understand Urinetown if you don't know The Threepenny Opera? How can you understand Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson if you don't know Jerry Herman and George M. Cohan? How can you understand the neo musical comedy if you don't understand classic musical comedy?

In this new Golden Age, our art form is returning to its roots and using all those classic devices but in all new ways, with the high energy and over-sized style of musical comedy, but more cynical, more ironic, more political. You can do Bat Boy without knowing My Fair Lady and Hello, Dolly!, and the audience will still enjoy it. But it will be richer, more interesting, and funnier if you do know its roots, and understand fully what the writers were up to.

Just my opinion, of course. Your mileage may vary. As a director and writer, I call upon my knowledge of musical theatre history, just as I call upon my knowledge of music theory when I write music.

I'm also on the cusp (I may be stretching the definition a bit now) between the people who take their theatre Very Seriously and those who believe they're just providing good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. First of all, I think the idea of escapism is a complete misreading of why humans love and need storytelling. Second, I think both serious intentions and fun are important. If either one is missing, you've made lesser art. I believe in a phrase I once heard in a Bob Fosse documentary: Poetry, Popcorn, and Politics. The idea is that good art, good storytelling, must contain these three elements: artistry, pure fun, and substance, in order to be fully satisfying.

Directors and actors don't always realize that shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, Cry-Baby, and so many others do indeed have all three of these elements. It's not always apparent when the shows aren't treated with respect, and the poetry and the politics get lost along the way. Our mantra at New Line is that we take the work seriously, but not ourselves. We may not always strike that balance perfectly, but it's what we aim for. We take our process seriously, but never lose the sense of joy and fun.

I suppose the New Line philosophy is cuspy itself. Our work isn't real far from the mainstream -- after all, we produce a lot of shows that at least opened on or off Broadway, even if they didn't run very long -- but our work is only occasionally and accidentally commercial. We believe in aiming for the highest of artistic excellence, but we also want to be as accessible as possible. We analyze and deconstruct the material, we have long discussions about subtext, but we never let go of a sense of joy and play.

Many of our shows are very funny and also very intense. Many of our shows tell very serious, if not tragic stories, though there are also a lot of laughs. And many of our wackiest comedies have a very serious underbelly. Almost every performance of every show, someone will walk out of the theatre after the show and say to me, "That wasn't at all what I was expecting!" And I often respond, "Well, that's what we do."

'Cause that's life, right? Life is pandemonium.

Which is why we need storytelling to make sense of it all. Which is why we need storytellers. No matter what cusp we're on.

Long Live the Musical!


Lizzie is only the second New Line show ever that I didn't direct. While Mike Dowdy-Windsor is usually my directing wingman, this time I'm his wingman, and it's funny to both of us how completely and easily we swapped our usual roles.

One result of that is that Dowdy really wants to watch every performance, to see how his show subtly evolves and grows -- that's usually me. And this time, I want to see the show a couple times, but I don't need to see it every night -- that's usually Dowdy.

So I've been out in the lobby during most performances. One of the fun parts about having lobby duty is that I get to say goodbye to everybody as they leave, after the show. And almost everybody leaves this show with a smile, despite the gruesome subject matter. Some thank me for bringing this show to St. Louis. Many people tell me how great it is. A couple nights ago, one much older guy was just gushing about it on his way out.

I think the intensely positive response to our show is because these four women on stage absolutely nail the rock & roll part of the equation, but they also give us really thoughtful, complicated, interesting acting. We found out recently that ours is the 25th production of Lizzie, and St. Louis is the 22nd city to host the show. You can see video of many of those productions on YouTube. I think what some other productions miss -- which Dowdy and the actors really get -- is the profound, complicated emotional heft of this story.

But that's what special about this show. It's a killer rock concert, but it's not just a rock concert; it's also great theatre. Some productions ignore the dramatic demands of this story, opting instead for wild outrageousness for the sake of wild outrageousness. The aggressive alt-goth-punk approach to this story is vitally important, but it's not all there is here. There is also some incredibly well-written, artfully constructed storytelling, which I would argue is even more important.

People come to the theatre for story.

Luckily for me and New Line, everybody working on Lizzie -- Dowdy, our intrepid music director Sarah Nelson, our scenic and lighting designer Rob Lippert, our costume designer Sarah Porter, and our extraordinary cast (Anna Skidis Vargas, Marcy Wiegert, Larissa White, and Kimi Short) -- they all understand that.

There's so much that's brilliant about the show, and I realize now it's an amazing companion piece to the male-centric American Idiot, which we produced in 2016.

On one level, Lizzie is a straight-up horror story. And weirdly, unexpectedly, on another level it's a story about female empowerment, and every woman who sees it gets that. It morphs from a story about revenge into a story about justice.

And that point is driven home forcefully but subtly with the use of the familiar children's song, "Forty Whacks." The song bookends the show (I love bookends!), but at the beginning, it's ethereal, creepy, scary, because at the beginning of the story these women are powerless victims. Then the song returns in the curtain call as an aggressive punk anthem, because now the women have taken over their story, they have found their power, they have steered their own lives -- significantly, men will never control Lizzie again because now she and Emma are rich. These contrasting uses of this well-known song that frame our horror tale, define the progress of our heroes.

Nobody in the audience is going to get all that consciously, but they'll all get it subconsciously. That's some really smart, subtle, exciting writing. The whole show is like that, seemingly so simple and raw on the surface, but with such rich complexity underneath.

I haven't submerged myself in this show, like I do when I'm directing, but it has been such a treat to watch it evolve and take shape. I'm so proud of our production. It's everything a New Line show should be, even though I had almost no artistic input at all. This is all Dowdy's baby, and it's a hell of an awesome baby.

Just look at our reviews...

"A hard-rocking, riot-grrrl explosion of rage, nerve and the best goth/steampunk/rollerchic costumes ever flaunted on a St. Louis stage." -- Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"New Line's ferocious Lizzie . . . fuses a punk rock attitude with slashing, guitar-driven rock." -- Paul Friswold, Riverfront Times

"A pounding, exciting, and beautifully assembled musical production." - Richard Green, TalkingBroadway

"The Rock Musical At Its Absolute Best" -- Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

"A creative and imaginative juggernaut" -- Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld

"A clearly modern and bold, unrepentantly murderous, perspective." -- Tina Farmer, KDHX

"Don’t walk, run to see it." - Andrea Torrence, St. Louis Theatre Snob

"Four wonderful performances by four stunning ladies. . an event of epic proportions." - Steve Allen, Stage Door St. Louis

Congrats to everybody working on Lizzie. We've hit another home run. If you haven't seen the show yet, don't miss it. We run through Oct. 21. It's truly extraordinary. You can get tickets here.

Long Live the Musical!

Chaucer, Rabelais, BALZAC: A Music Man Glossary

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man contains dozens of words and phrases that most of us have never used or even heard, many of them things that Willson himself must have heard growing up in turn of the century Iowa. I so often get emails asking about one or more of these, so I figured, let's get them all together in one list.

The movie version changed some of these references, fearing the audience wouldn't know them. But as the show proves, it's not important for the audience to know every reference -- it's just important for this world we create onstage feels honest and authentic to the audience. As long as the actors know and understand all the references, it will contribute to the "reality" of this fictional version of 1912 Iowa.

Below is a list of those oddities and what they mean, along with some other references you may not know... Enjoy!

kibitzing -- talking, joking, chitchatting

notion salesman -- a guy who sells small personal items

button-hook -- a small metal hook for pulling buttons through buttonholes.

hard goods & soft goods -- Hard goods are durable merchandise, like cars, machinery, furniture, appliances, etc. Soft goods are merchandise that isn’t as durable, like clothing, rugs, and other textiles.

noggin -- a small cup or mug of wine, usually a quarter-pint.

piggin -- a small bowl with a ladle for serving cream.

firkin -- a small wooden tub for butter or lard.

hogshead -- a large container holding sixty-three gallons of wine.

cask -- a bottle of any size, but usually one holding liquor.

demijohn -- a large wine bottle with a narrow neck and usually a wicker enclosure around the bottom.

Model T Ford -- a very popular car. In 1912, U.S. auto makers were manufacturing 115,000 new cars a month, about a quarter of them Ford Model Ts. Ten years later, 50% of the cars in America were Model Ts.

Uneeda Biscuit -- soda crackers introduced in 1889 by National Biscuit Company (now better known as Nabisco), the first crackers to be sold packaged with a brand name instead of just out of a cracker barrel. This marketing experiment paid off and by 1900, Uneeda Biscuits were selling more than ten million packages a month, while all other brands of packaged crackers combined totaled only 40,000 packages a month.

Mail Pouch – a brand of chewing tobacco

teirce -- a wine cask holding forty-two gallons.

mandolin -- a stringed instrument (like a very small guitar) shaped like a pear

Jews-harp – a small metal musical instrument you hold between your teeth and pluck

tarred and feathered -- covered with tar and feathers (which is often deadly) as punishment

rode out on a rail -- banished from a community, as punishment (often after being tarred and feathered), often literally carried out on a fence rail

two-bit -- cheap (literally twenty-five cents)

thimble-rigger -- con man or thief

Hawkeyes -- residents of Iowa

livery Stable -- stable where horses are kept and hired out

billiards -- a table game like pool, without pockets

Horse sense -- practical common sense

three-rail billiard shot -- a shot that banks off three sides of the billiards table

balkline game -- billiards

pinch-back suit -- a suit with a coat that is gathered in the back, the sign of a city slicker

Jasper -- slang word for a (usually) a white guy who is simple or naive

Dan Patch -- a champion harness racing horse at the turn of the century, at a time when the jockey rode behind the horses in a cart, not on them

frittern -- frittering – wasting time

beefsteak -- a slice of beef for frying

cistern -- a tank for storing water that had to be kept full (by pouring water into it manually) for the family to use, before people had indoor plumbing

knickerbockers -- knee pants that gather at the knee, worn by young boys at the turn of the century.

Bevo -- a brand of non-alcoholic near-beer, from Anheuser-Busch, but it wasn't introduced till four years after our story is set...

Cubebs and Tailor-mades -- various kinds of hand-rolled cigarettes. Cigarettes were illegal (and considered highly immoral) in Iowa at that time.

Sen-Sen -- a popular breath freshener, very small but very strong.

arm'ry -- armory -- headquarters for a National Guard unit

libertine -- morally or sexually unrestrained

scarlet -- adulterous. It refers to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter.

ragtime -- syncopated jazz music, popular at the turn of the century, so called because of "ragged" (off-the-beat) style

dime Novel -- cheap, paperback adventure novels, in vogue from the 1850s through the 1920s.

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang -- a racy monthly humor magazine first published in 1919, which reached a circulation of 425,000 in 1923. (Technically, this reference is anachronistic, since the show is set in 1912.)

Balzac -- Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), a French novelist

Paul Bunyon -- a giant from American folklore

Saint Pat -- St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, a missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland

Noah Webster -- (1758-1843) American essayist and lexicographer, who created one of the earliest American dictionaries

cross-hand -- a piano piece that requires one hand crossing over the other to play a note or chord

"This Ruby Hat of Omar Kay-ay-ay"- -- The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, erotic 12th century Persian poetry

stereopticon -- a slide projector with two light sources, so the pictures appear to fade from one to the next. Also, a hand-held device that lets the user look at two identical pictures at the same time, giving it a three-dimensional effect.

tablow -- tableau -- a grouping of people in costumes to create a still "picture"

Springfield Rifle -- a kind of rifle developed after the Civil War

ruffian -- a bully or lawless person

crick -- dialect for “creek”

pest house -- a hospital or house for people infected with pestilential diseases (bubonic plague, for example)

Pompy-eye -- Pompeii, an ancient city buried in the ash of an erupting volcano

Gilmore -- Patrick S. Gilmore (1829-1892), a famous Irish-American bandleader who wrote “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” (under a pseudonym).

Liberati -- Alessandro Liberati (1847-1927), an Italian born cornet player, bandleader, and composer, who came to the U.S. in 1872 and played with many bands, including Gilmore's. He had his own touring band from 1889 to 1909, and was active in music (opera, other bands, teaching) until his death

Pat Conway -- (1867-1929) a conductor, bandleader, and teacher, who directed several bands from the 1890s until his death and was the founder of the Air Force Band in World War I. Conway and Sousa were friends, and their bands often performed together.

The Great Creatore -- Giuseppe Creatore (1871-1952), an Italian conductor and composer who brought a band to the U.S. in 1902 to tour. He was active as a conductor through the 1930s.

W.C. Handy -- (1873-1958) a famous American blues composer and bandleader, who wrote “St. Louis Blues.”

John Philip Sousa -- (1854-1932) a world-famous bandleader and composer, who was known as “the March King” for writing many of the famous marches that marching bands play today.

(Harold's comment in the intro to “76 Trombones” about all these famous musicians coming to town on the same day, appears to be a joke, although an obscure one. The joke is that it would have been essentially impossible for all these extremely famous men of widely varying ages to actually come to one small town, especially all on one day. Hill is just throwing out names that sound impressive, names that the River City townspeople might know from their piano sheet music.)

cornet -- a different version of a trumpet, shorter in length (the same amount of tubing, just wrapped around more), with a longer bell and a somewhat darker sound.

tympani -- big bass drums

horse platoons -- military units of horses (in this case, used for a parade)

euphonium -- like a baritone, which is itself like a small version of the tuba, but the euphonium has a larger opening in the bell and produces a mellower sound and better low notes than the baritone.

Harch -- variant of “march”

Frank Gotch and Strangular Lewis -- two early 20th-century American wrestlers

Jeely Kly -- exclamation, variant of “Jesus Christ”

Perpetual Motion -- the theoretical ability of a mechanism to continue to move forever by itself without any loss of energy or speed. The joke here is that Tommy thinks he “nearly had” perpetual motion a couple times, which is impossible.

class of aught-five -- class of 1905

canoodlin' -- slang for romantic activity. According to Wesbter's (I love this), "The origins of canoodle are obscure. Our best guess is that it may come from an English dialect noun of the same spelling meaning "donkey," "fool," or "foolish lover," which itself may be an alteration of the word noodle, meaning "a foolish person." That noodle, in turn, may come from noddle, a word for the head. The guess seems reasonable given that, since its appearance in the language around the mid-19th century, canoodle has been most often used jocularly for playful public displays of affection by couples who are head over heels in love."

"For no Diana do I play faun" -- Diana is the Roman goddess of the hunt and the moon, and the faun is a mythological creature that is a man with ears, horns, tail and hind legs of a goat. This is probably a reference to the famous painting Diana and Her Nymphs Surprised by the Fauns (1638-40) by Peter Paul Rubens. Harold's line apparently means he's not chasing after any women.

Hester -- Hester Prynne, the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, who had to wear a red “A” in punishment for her adultery.

agog -- highly excited

on the que veev -- on alert, watchful, a corruption of qui vive, French for “who goes there?”

Pianola -- a brand of player pianos

Delsarte -- François Delsarte (1811-1871), a French musician and dance teacher who taught a dance and acting method based on the mastery of certain bodily attitudes and gestures. Look at the drawings, and see how the Ladies Auxiliary for the Classic Dance is trying to imitate these moves with their "Grecian Urn" performance.

Gilt-edge -- of the highest quality, literally edged with gold

Chaucer -- Geoffery Chaucer (1340-1400), English author and poet who wrote the very racy Canterbury Tales

Raballaise -- François Rabelais (1490-1553), a French satirist and humorist, who wrote the very racy Gargantua and Pantagruel, which many thought was obscene and blasphemous

Balzac -- Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), the notorious French novelist who wrote Droll Stories, a racy collection of thirty short stories

malfeasance -- wrongdoing. The joke here is that implication that Harold could get a permit for malfeasance.

flugelhorn -- like a cornet, but with a larger opening in the bell.

"Minute Waltz" -- famous waltz by Chopin that, if played very fast, takes less than a minute

Quaker -- a member of The Society of Friends, a religion that rejects luxuries, modern technology, and anything that isn’t mentioned in the Bible.

St. Bridget -- an Irish saint, who founded the first nunnery in Ireland

O'Clark, O'Mendez, O'Klein -- comic reference to three famous musicians who were not Irish, the famous cornet player Herbert L. Clarke, the famous Mexican trumpet player Rafael Mendez (another anachronism, since he was born only six years before our story), and apparently the famous Jewish trumpet player Manny Klein (but again, he was born only four years before our story).

St. Michael -- an Irish saint, who first brought formal education to Ireland in the fifth century

hod -- a portable trough

mavorneen -- mavourneen -- Irish word for “sweetheart,” derived from the Irish Gaelic mo mhuirnín, meaning "my beloved"

Tara’s Hall -- a music hall in Dublin

Hodado -- dialect for “how do you do”

Epworth League -- a Methodist youth organization, founded in 1889

Black Hole of Calcutta -- a small prison in India in which the more than a hundred Europeans were killed in 1756.

Wells Fargo Wagon -- a stagecoach delivery service started in 1851, which allowed mail order sales to flourish

mackinaw -- a thick, blanket-like coat, usually plaid, named for a kind of blanket that northern and western native Americans made.

double-boiler -- a small pot that fits into a bigger pot. Water is boiled in the bigger pot to cook things in the smaller pot.

D.A.R. -- The Daughters of the American Revolution, a patriotic women’s organization

"Minuet in G" -- very famous classical piece by Ludwig von Beethoven

Tempus fugits -- hurry up. It’s a Latin phrase meaning “time flies”

frazolagy -- phraseology, or choice of words

"Rustle of Spring" -- turn-of-the-century piano piece written by the Norwegian composer Christian Sinding, that was very popular in the US

Grecian Urn -- the ladies are doing interpretive dance, based on the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.

Shipoopi -- this is just a nonsense word

Capulets -- one of the warring families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Mississippi sturgeon -- a fish

Galileo -- Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Italian physicist and astronomer, who figured out that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around.

Columbus -- Christopher Columbus (1446-1506), Italian navigator who is credited with discovering America.

Bach -- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), famous classical composer whose work is the basis for modern music theory.

Well-Tempered Clavichord -- refers to a famous piece of music by Bach. A clavichord is an early version of a piano.

Redpath Circuit -- one of several vaudeville circuits in the U.S., a group of theatres to which performers would travel

Criminee -- a slang expression of dismay, a corruption of  "Christ"

Tintype -- an old-fashioned photograph

Hector Berlioz -- (1803-1869), French classical composer. (Harold couldn’t be getting a cable from him, since he had been dead for almost forty years.)

Cat-boat -- a small boat with one mast and one large sail.

Buster Brown -- a comic strip character

Privy -- outhouse

Shropshyre sheep -- English sheep known for very white wool and good meat

From time to time, I'm contacted by a dramaturg who wants to work with us, but I love doing this kind of research. As I write this, we recently closed the amazing Sweet Smell of Success, which was just loaded with 1950s New York references. It was so much fun discovering what they all meant and sharing that with the actors. Like I said above, understanding all that stuff is so key for the actors.

Right now, I'm reading everything I can about the culture and pop culture of the 1930s, as I start thinking about our upcoming production of Anything Goes later this season.

One of the great joys of this blog is being able to share cool stuff like this with so many people. Hope this list is entertaining and/or helpful...

Long Live the Musical!

Fuck the Fourth Wall

I've always found the idea of the Fourth Wall to be silly at best, and dishonest at worst. We all know there's no wall there; isn't it dishonest for the actors to pretend that a wall is there... and that the audience isn't...?

There were a lot of ways in which I wanted to explore, new ideas, new directions, new focus, when I founded New Line Theatre in 1991. One of the most obvious ways was our content, with shows like Assassins, In the Blood, Sweeney, Passion, The Ballad of Little Mikey, Floyd Collins, Jacques Brel, et al.

But we also explored, from the very beginning, the idea of space and the artificial divide between actors and audience. A lot of New Line's history has been spent playing with those ideas or shattering them altogether. And I thought it would be fun to look back over some of the fourth-wall-fucking we've done over the last twenty-six years.

I couldn't put it into words until more recently, but a big part of the impetus for starting New Line was about embracing work outside the frame of 50s musical comedy and Rodgers & Hammerstein drama. I don't think I knew exactly what I didn't like about R&H when I started New Line, but I do now. It was the deeply flawed idea that musical theatre could work as mid-century naturalistic drama, that the performance of a musical could ever be naturalistic. They created (or at least regularized) the idea of a musical internal monologue, to excuse characters singing full front to the audience; but it's a ruse. The writers and actor really are telling the audience what the character is thinking.

It's Fourth Wall breaking without the guilt.

My work with New Line has almost always been about rebelling against all of that. It's dishonest. The actors are telling us this stuff. It's called storytelling. There's nothing shameful about a soliloquy. If it was good enough for Shakespeare...

Imagine the emotional heft of Billy Bigelow directly sharing "Soliloquy" with the audience, talking with them, not just at them. Like Tevye does in Fiddler.

After hearing way too many times that the staging for The Great Comet was "ground-breaking" (it was really great, but American directors have been using staging like that since the sixties), I've been thinking about the various ways we've played with space over New Line's history, rebelling against naturalism and the proscenium. It's interesting to see how our experiments got bolder over time. It started with invading the audience's space personally, and then over time, more generally moving the show off the stage...

The very first show New Line produced was A Tribute to the Rock Musicals, which I created. It was essentially a concert tracing the history of rock musicals, with some minor staging here and there. But in looking for a new way to frame the evening, I created a Professor (played by John Gerdes, who's currently working on the music for The Zombies of Penzance for New Line), who actually gave a "lecture" on the history of the rock musical.

The actors all started in the house, quickly overcome by the opening number, dancing and singing in the aisles, then moving up onto the stage to become the "examples" of the Professor's lecture. Looking back, I can't believe I made audiences listen to a lecture, but people loved the show. We only got a couple reviews back then, but they were both very nice. At the time I was just experimenting, but I realized that the actors coming out of the audience made them the audience's surrogates, and we all "learned" together, while rocking out to some killer show tunes.

New Line's second show was a neo musical comedy I wrote called Attempting the Absurd, about an unusually self-aware twenty-something who has figured out that he's only a character in a musical. In 1992, long before [title of show]. My senior year in college, I got this idea, and my roommate and I discussed the details and the logical implications of my premise for the entire school year -- if the other characters think they're real, then they don't know they're singing. If they don't know they're singing, what is going on in their reality? When I got home, I had honed my central premise and I wrote the show.

But since the "entire world" -- everybody and everything in Jason's life -- is a musical, then the audience is part of the story too, as the musical's audience. So once again, we started the show out in the house, this time with Jason and his girlfriend arguing across the center section of the audience, and then both of them slowly moving into one row, pushing past audience members, ending up dead center between two rows (a comic device I used again fifteen years later in Urinetown). It was impossible for the audience to be passive after that. They were part of this. Throughout the show, Jason talked to the audience, although his mother sometimes asked him why he was talking to the wall. My favorite bit was right after the first big scene. Jason sits on the front of the stage and talks to the audience:
It was three things that led to my discovery that I'm only a character in a musical comedy: I have the overwhelming feeling that everything I do is controlled by someone somewhere behind a typewriter, I have only a sketchy memory of my past, and I never go to the bathroom.

(He senses disbelief in the audience.)

You laugh, but haven't you ever felt like the things that happen around you aren't real? Just couldn't be real? Kind-of set out too perfectly? Like when you pick up the phone to call somebody and they're already on the line. Hasn't that ever happened to you?

It's been two years, no – longer, three years since I started really thinking about who I am, why am I here... And then not long ago, I suddenly realized that I'm only a character in a musical. I realized that I only exist within this musical. Of course, since everyone else thinks they're real, they think I'm nuts.

(Slowly and with great import:)

See, I'm a fictional character in the Real World, while all the people around me are real people in a fictional world.

(A long pause while he lets it sink in. He smiles. He knows how confusing he sounds.)

I bet you'd give anything to see Hello Dolly! right about now, wouldn't you..? Musicals used to be so neat and tidy... Ever since Sondheim, it's been all… downhill...

Eventually, Jason is arrested, for generally being crazy, and the charges are dismissed when Jason presents the Judge with the script for Attempting the Absurd.

I was meta before meta was cool. In case you're wondering, the title came from a line in the show, "Only by attempting the absurd can you achieve the ridiculous." The perfect title for this show.

Our fourth season, we did Pippin, with a woman as Leading Player, back in 1995 before that was trendy. We were in the St. Marcus, a theatre in a church basement. We built a runway off the front of the stage, out through the house to the back, and we used it a lot. The St. Marcus was a perfect place for this show, seating about 150, with the front row about three feet from the stage. It was really intense, really freaky.

I was particularly proud of some of the moments I created in that show. My favorite was the opening. The house went to black, and a pinspot came up slowly on Pippin, out on the runway, in the middle of the house. He takes a breath and raises his hand -- which is holding a gun -- up to his temple. He closes his eyes... and that note fades in... and he looks around... and "Magic to Do" starts. He slowly turns around and sees the Players emerging from the darkness...

What I loved about that moment was that it was incredibly intense, which gave the whole evening some serious balls, but it also set up the show's climax, when Leading Player tells the audience, "Why, we're right inside your head." This whole story has happened in Pippin's mind, so the Grand Finale is, by definition, suicide. I'm not sure audiences always get that, and I think this helped.

We produced Sweeney Todd in 1996, and for the first time, we did something I had been wanting to do for years. We used the entire theatre, including the audience, as the environment for our story. I had read an interview with Sondheim, in which he said he had wanted Sweeney to be a small, chamber musical, with the actors popping up behind the audience, scaring the crap out of them. I loved that idea!

So for our production, the aisles became the streets of London. Because we were in a basement theatre, there were support poles in the audience, and we dressed them all up as streetlamps. In addition to the small permanent stage at the St. Marcus, we built two satellite stages; and two of these three stages had revolves. Each time the chorus would sing "City on Fire," they would literally be inches behind the back row of the audience.

It was so much fun, and people really loved the intensity of it. The show became a real horror show again, instead of ironic social commentary.

In 1999, we did Into the Woods in much the same way, but going even further, this time setting a cross-aisle halfway through the audience, and again using all the aisles as paths in the woods, and now dressing up those poles as trees. Every time the cast would do the aphorisms, they'd all be walking briskly up and down the aisles, through the cross-aisle, behind the back row. It was completely stereophonic, and there was so much to look at.

As we did with Sweeney, we played big hunks of the show out in the house. One of my favorite moments evolved out of a problem. Our cast was slightly smaller than the original, and after Jack's Mother is conked on the head -- in the middle of our cross-aisle -- I needed the Steward to help carry her out of the way. But the Steward was holding the royal staff. So we decided he had to get rid of the staff somehow. Our solution was that he would slide it under the chairs in the front row, then whisper to whoever was on the end, "Say nothing or you're next!" The reactions were wonderful.

We don't usually do what you'd call "immersive" theatre, but every once in a while, there's a moment that comes close.

Another "close moment" was right before the finale of Assassins. This was our second production of the show, and we staged it in the round, each section of audience only four rows deep. It was So Intense. Byck threw his hamburger out "the window" over the heads of the audience. This was before the show had "Something Just Broke" added. So we finished the book depository scene, that amazing vocal counterpoint segues into the Copland-esque instrumental, and all the assassins went into the house, each addressing just a handful of people, each assassin privately telling that handful of people why he or she had to do it. The last to finish was always Guiteau, so as this weird, soft cacophony ended, we'd hear Guiteau hissing, "I did it for you! I did it for you!" And they all left the space as the music transitioned to "Everybody's Got the Right." It was one of the creepiest things we had ever done, and it really unnerved people.

With Floyd Collins, also in 1999, we kept the show onstage almost the whole time, with one exception when Floyd's down in the cave and he sings his cave calls. We placed the other actors all around the audience to sing Floyd's multiple echos. It was a really wonderful effect.

It's not really fair to say we rejected the Fourth Wall when we did Hair, since it never had a Fourth Wall to begin with. As I said to many people about Hair, it's not a show, not a performance, as much as just a happening, an experience. Every night before the show even started, our tribe was out in the house, greeting the audience and passing out daisies (as the original production had done). They spent a lot of time in the audience during the show, and at the end (again, like the original), they invited the audience onto the stage to dance. You'd be amazed how many people did. There was never a divide between actors and audience. The whole space was open to us. It was so freeing.

Then we moved into the ArtLoft Theatre in 2001. It was our first time in a blackbox, and it was like someone had just taught me to fly...

One of my favorite experiments was our 2001 production of the 1937 labor musical The Cradle Will Rock. Our production recreated the show's real opening night -- when the government had shut it down, the producers had found another theatre, and then the whole audience walked twenty-one blocks uptown to the other theatre. But the actors' union forbade them from appearing onstage, so much of the cast performed the show anyway, but from the audience. You can hear original producer John Houseman tell that amazing opening night story here.

My director's notes in our program for Cradle gave the audience its backstory, that they had just walked twenty-one blocks uptown, etc. Then Orson Welles greeted the audience and introduced me as composer Marc Blitzstein, to play his/my show from the stage. As it happened in 1937, just a few notes in, an actor stood up in the house and started singing, and soon the entire show was playing out in the audience. It was really thrilling theatre.

For both Bat Boy in 2003 and 2006, and Urinetown in 2007, we returned to the idea of playing lots of the show out in the house, in the aisles, between rows. You can watch our Urinetown Act I finale here, to see how much fun we had. I remember during that run, I watched most of the show from the booth upstairs, because it was a great view, but I always came downstairs into the back of the house for the Act I finale, because it was so wild, it just left you breathless.

Another interesting experiment was our Sunday in the Park with George in 2003. I had this idea to create something close to the two-dimensional world of the painting. So we built a stage eight feet wide by thirty-two feet long, down the middle of the theatre, with audience on both sides, facing each other. I almost gave up on the idea in blocking rehearsals -- it's incredibly hard to block on a stage like that -- but we figured it out. And the final effect was very cool.

In case you're wondering, the "painting" reversed between the Act I finale and the Act II opening, so both sides got a good look at the painting.

When we did Man of La Mancha in 2004 we built a small 16' x 16' stage in the middle of the space, and made it look as old and gross possible, and we made the entire theatre space (an old warehouse, which was perfect) into our dungeon, with the audience on all four sides. During the show, the entire cast sat around the stage watching when they weren't in the story. And because the front row of audience was only a couple feet behind the "prisoners," it pulled the audience into the action really powerfully, bringing them into the dungeon with us. It also made the rape scene very hard to watch. The one time the ensemble disappeared (gradually slipping underneath the stage) was for "The Quest," so Quixote could really be alone in the courtyard.

Our Robber Bridegroom and The Fantasticks, both in 2005, followed in our experiments with Bat Boy and Urinetown, playing all over the theatre throughout the whole show. It was fun thinking about the implications of playing out in the audience so much. Different people sitting in different places see different shows. We decided to embrace that and added lots of little details that only a handful of people could see or hear, depending on where they're sitting -- and that prompted a lot of repeat customers.

We left the ArtLoft in 2007, after Urinetown. For seven years we were at the Washington University South Campus Theatre, which was very nice, but after seven years in a blackbox, it felt a bit constraining sometimes. Now we're back in a blackbox at the Marcelle, and we've having lots of fun with it.

It's been so much fun and so educational having this wonderful laboratory -- our company -- in which to experiment with our art form, particularly now in this new Golden Age, when the material is so often extraordinary. So far, we've tried four different configurations in our first two seasons at the Marcelle.  My favorite so far was Atomic, with the playing space down the middle, and audience on both sides, watching this show about America's creation of the Bomb, with other Americans as a backdrop. Pretty cool.

Our next show, Lizzie, is another piece that fucks with the Fourth Wall. The actors won't leave the stage, but the show is a kind of hybrid of rock concert and rock opera, and much of it works best full front, directly singing to the audience. But there are also dramatic scenes, in which there's a vague sense of a fragile Fourth Wall. The toggle between the two is really interesting, and it makes for some intense storytelling!

New Line is not an "experimental" company. We're not "avant garde." The label I use is "alternative musical theatre," in other words, not mainstream, but not way outside, just different, alternative. But we have experimented a lot over our past twenty-six seasons, and I'm sure there will be plenty more cool experiments to come.

Stay tuned. And don't miss Lizzie!

Long Live the Musical!

It's a Musical!

St. Louis loves musicals.

Often at this time of year, I will marvel yet again at the amazing musical theatre scene we have here in St. Louis, so many shows produced by so many companies, and with no duplicates in the list! If you're curious, here are lists for 2014 and 2015, and also my blog post from last year on The Top Ten Reasons St. Louis Theatre Rocks.

Ever since the New Line website was created in 1997, we've kept a page on our website listing all the theatre companies in town, and another page with all the upcoming productions of musicals in the area.

It's so inspiring to browse the list every year. So much cool, interesting theatre...

Aug. 18-Sept. 3 – In the Heights, R-S Theatrics
Aug. 25-Sept. 2 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Next Generation Theatre Co.
Sept. 8-Oct. 8 – South Pacific, Stages St. Louis
Sept. 8-17 – Bye Bye Birdie, Monroe Actors Stage Company
Sept. 15-24 – Meet Me in St. Louis, Christ Memorial Productions
Sept. 28-Oct. 21 – Lizzie, New Line Theatre
Oct. 3-15 – The Bodyguard, Fox Theatre
Oct. 6-15 – Into the Woods, Alpha Players
Oct. 5-21 – Spring Awakening, Stray Dog Theatre
Oct. 10-22 - Evil Dead, Grandel Theatre
Oct. 13-21 - Next to Normal, Take Two Productions
Oct. 13-21 - The Rocky Horror Show, Alfresco Productions
Nov. 2-5 – William Finn's Elegies, Fontbonne University
Nov. 3-12 – Spitfire Grill, Hawthorne Players
Nov. 3-12 – Little Shop of Horrors, Act Two Theatre
Nov. 3-12 – The Drowsy Chaperone, Over Due Theatre Co.
Nov. 7-12 – Disenchanted, The Playhouse @ Westport Plaza
Nov. 7-19 – On Your Feet!, Fox Theatre
Nov. 21-22 – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Fox Theatre
Nov. 28-Dec. 10 – The King and I, Fox Theatre
Dec. 26-28 – Elf, Peabody Opera House
Dec. 27-31 – Cinderella, Fox Theatre
Jan. 3-28 – The Marvelous Wondrettes, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Jan. 9-March 31 – Menopause the Musical, The Playhouse @ Westport Plaza
Jan. 13-14 – Kinky Boots, Peabody Opera House
Jan. 16-28 – School of Rock, Fox Theatre
Feb. 2-4 – The Sound of Music, Fox Theatre
Feb. 9-10 – Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story, Peabody Opera House
Feb. 23-25 – The Wizard of Oz, Fox Theatre
March 1-24 – Anything Goes, New Line Theatre
March 2-4 – Chicago, Fox Theatre
Mar. 9 – Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder, Peabody Opera House
March 20-April 1 – The Color Purple, Fox Theatre
April 3-22 – Hamilton, Fox Theatre
April 12-28 – Jesus Christ Superstar, Stray Dog Theatre
April 17-May 6 – A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, The Playhouse @ Westport Plaza
May 3-20 – The Phantom of the Opera, Fox Theatre
May 4-13 – Guys and Dolls, Kirkwood Theatre Guild
May 29-June 3 – The Book of Mormon, Fox Theatre
May 31-June 23 – Yeast Nation, New Line Theatre
July 24-29 – It Shoulda Been You, SCC Center Stage Theatre
Aug. 2-18 – The Robber Bridegroom, Stray Dog Theatre

And lest we forget,. next summer is The Muny's 100th Summer Season!

The New Liners are certainly doing our share to keep our scene vibrant. Our coming season includes the wild, fierce, four-woman rock opera Lizzie in October, followed by a public reading of The Zombies of Penzance for one night in early January, then the classic satire Anything Goes in March, and the brilliantly crazy new musical Yeast Nation in June, from the creators of Urinetown.

People sometimes ask me why I'm not working in New York. Who needs New York?

I can't wait to see so many of these shows! St. Louis rocks!

Long Live the Musical!

Master of the House

As long as I live, one of the things in my artistic life that will stay with me forever, is this: from the moment I started New Line Theatre, as a cocky 27-year-old, both Steve Woolf, artistic director of The Rep, and Ron Himes, artistic director of The Black Rep, treated me with total respect, like I was legitimately their peer. That meant so much to me.

Steve and Ron have both always been there for me, for advice and encouragement. But today, Steve announced his retirement, in two years. I will miss his steady hand at the Rep. He's definitely one of my artistic heroes.

The first time I staged a show in-the-round, I called Steve and asked if he had some time to talk. As he always does, he took some time out of his day to sit and talk with me, and he gave me one of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten: when directing in-the-round, never sit in the same place for very long in rehearsal, because the actors will want to play to you. The more you move around, the more the actors' performances will play to the full house. It totally worked.

I also called him the first time I was directing a play, after decades of directing musicals. His advice was awesome: it's not that different. He told me to use all the same tools I use with musicals, and we also talked about the different kinds of energy and "size" in plays and musicals. He told me he thought it would be easier for me to transition from musicals to plays than it would be for someone to go the other direction. I think that's true.

In 1999, I was writing for In Theatre magazine, reviewing St. Louis shows, and writing an occasional feature, and I pitched them a story about Steve and the Rep. Steve is, in a real way, the representative of our entire theatre community. Here's the article I wrote.
Steve Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, sees pretty much everything he does as interactive, as a discussion with the community. "We are the repository of things live," he says. "Entertainment is getting less and less live these days, but every night seven hundred people come together in our theatre to celebrate things live." He smiles and adds, "It's civilizing."

He was also gracious enough to do one of my earliest podcasts, which you can listen to here, detailing each step of the process of producing a play. It's such fun to talk theatre with him.

But nothing matters more than the amazing artistic and institutional legacy Steve leaves us. It will be sad to see him go, but he built such an amazing company, and he has shared his considerable talent with us through so many brilliant, thrilling productions. I will never forget his productions (as director) of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Arcadia, Betrayal, Red, Frost/Nixon, Other Desert Cities, All the Way, The Crucible, Art, As Bees in Honey Drown, all of them smart, thrilling theatre, and that's only a partial list.

His production of Virginia Woolf was a real revelation for me; I understood the play so much better after seeing that brilliant cast under Steve's brilliant direction. It was the first time I understood how desperately George and Martha love and need each other, how much they appreciate each other's mind, and most significantly for me, in this production, they laughed at each other's quips a lot. All that made the final moments of the play more potent than I could have imagined. It was absolutely the best production of Virginia Woolf I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a few.

Steve's Arcadia was one of the coolest things I've ever seen onstage, so rich, so playful, so smart, so emotional. I saw that production three times.

But he's also responsible as artistic director for bringing us so many other brilliant productions that he didn't direct, thrilling shows like Ambition Facing West, Side Man, Follies, Fly, Clybourne Park, The Bomb-itty of Errors, Avenue X, Book of Days, and so many others. I had the great thrill of reviewing Books of Days for In Theatre, and then being quoted on the back of the published script!

One of my favorite pastimes is emailing Steve after seeing a Rep show, usually gushing about how much I loved it, asking questions, positing theories. He's always so open and cool about having those conversations with me.

I speak for myself, but I think also for our whole city -- I am so grateful to Steve Woolf for all the great art he has brought into my life, and for building here in our city a world-class regional theatre, a theatre that regularly produces the very first productions after Broadway of new and important work, as well as world premieres. We are very lucky, and we owe Steve everything.

We will miss him at the helm of the Rep, but we know he and the people around him have built a ship sturdy enough to keep on sailing for a very long time.

Thank you, Steve!

Long Live the Theatre!