The Ghosts of Dick and Ockie & Their Eleven O'Clock Number

One of my favorite things is the mashup, combining two things that don't seem like they'd go together, but they actually make something wonderful. A good example is Head Over Heels, the sublime rock musical that marries a 16th-century comic romantic novel with the songs of The Go-Go's. New Line's production of Head Over Heels was rudely interrupted by the virus last year, but we're bringing it back next March.

Another example is my own project, The Zombies of Penzance, a crazy mashup of Gilbert & Sullivan English light opera, with George Romero zombie movies. One of my favorite examples of mashup is Jerry Springer the Opera. Such a glorious, brilliant monstrosity! As you can see, I'm a fan of mashup.

During the Great Pandemic, the way I've kept my sanity (relatively speaking) was lots of time with my cat Hamilton, lots of pot, and lots of writing. One of the things I wrote last year was a collection of "weird fiction," called Night of the Living Show Tunes: 13 Tales of the Weird. I've always loved horror, so this was a dream project for me.

Some of the stories are full-out horror, but some are just really, really weird. One story is my only specific imitation in the book, a rewrite of Poe's "The Raven," now about a young writer of musical theatre meeting the ghosts of Rodgers and Hammerstein late one night. Another mashup.

Though I loved the central idea of this mashup, the real fun was duplicating exactly Poe's rhythms and rhyme scheme. It felt a lot like writing my fake Gilbert & Sullivan shows, The Zombies of Penzance and Bloody King Oedipus! Artists say it lot but it's really true -- limitations are great for creativity. (Just look at New Line!) And it's unbelievably effective lyric-writing practice for me, forcing myself into another writer's language, grammar, and whatever patterns of rhythm and rhyme they've laid out.

My other agenda here was to present the other side to the argument I often make that Rodgers and Hammerstein's work is no longer terribly relevant to today's world and culture. In my poem, Dick and Ockie offer the young writer (who's kind of me, 25 years ago) genuine advice which I think is in tune with their actual beliefs, opinions, and artistic philosophy. It was a very cool exercise, having to speak for them.

Well, here it is. With apologies to Mr. Poe.

Once upon a midnight, writing my next musical, inviting
All the Muses in to help me with my lovely, lonely chore;
At my laptop, happ’ly tapping, could it be I heard a rapping?
Was my tapping overlapping rapping on my office door?
So I listened, listened raptly for that rapping on my door.
          But I heard not one rap more.

I returned to my new story, whimsical and more than gory,
Mashing up Old Broadway with some George Romero zombie gore;
With admitted condescension for tradition and convention,
I believed that writers should write old-school musicals no more;
Only fearless new shows, and those older show tunes nevermore,
          No more scores like shows of yore.

My first draft was truly rocking, when again I heard that knocking,
Softly, faintly, quaintly knocking, as politely as before.
Who, this late, would come to visit? So, of course, I called, “Who is it?
Who is it out there who knocks so soft upon my office door?”
When I crossed and threw it open wide, my oaken, office door –
          Just the hall and nothing more.

Turning back into my workspace, feeling like some jumpy jerkface,
Suddenly I saw a sight I’d never ever seen before –
Richard Rodgers standing there, with Oscar Hammerstein, the pair
Just smiling so serenely, and it shook me to my very core!
Hucksters of the Homespun, with those folksy morals I deplore!
          They just smiled, and nothing more.

Spirits, sure, so pale and ghostly! I stood brave, well sort of, mostly;
Well, I closed my eyes and screamed, “Hallucination! Metaphor!”
But the phantoms laughed profoundly at how foolish they both found me
Which I must admit, did leave me and my ego more than sore.
(Being entertainment for the dead is really quite a bore.
          Quite a bore, and nothing more.)

Decades dead, and much, much thinner, rotted so, I lost my dinner!
Specters of the netherworld, who somehow someway, had crossed o’er!
Sure they saw in my expression my alarm at their transgression,
Slipping from the spirit world! I’d somehow send them back, I swore!
Ne’er again would scary fiends come knocking at my office door!
          But I trembled even more.

So I faced the two old codgers, Ockie (left) and (right) Dick Rodgers,
Solid-seeming, standing there upon my hardwood office floor.
Feeling woozy, fizzy, dreamy, I asked “Why’ve you come to see me?
Surely I can’t learn from those whose musicals I so abhor!
No offense, but I would rather all your musicals ignore!
          Not half bad, but nothing more.”

Had I thus these ghosts offended, more so than I had intended?
If I’d angered them, were evil spells on me to be in store?
Like two spirits out of Dickens, making sure the plot line thickens,
Punishing me now for all my rash pronouncements heretofore,
All those rough and rude remarks, with ego as the underscore?
          (Ego’s bad as underscore.)

Sensing I was somewhat nervous, Dick said, “May we be of service?
May we help you with this lovely art form which we all adore?
We can see that you’re impassioned, and you think that we’re old-fashioned,
But believe me, we can teach you timeless truths and tricks galore.
We know things are different now, but we know timeless truths galore.”
          I said, “Oh,” and then some more…

“Sorry, Sondheim is my guru, gets me giddy more than you two,
Far more witty, writes a more sophisticated, darker score.”
Dick smiled. “Dark is not the measure, not the thing you most should treasure;
No, son, honest feelings are what finally matters even more.”
Ockie nodded gravely, “Honest feelings make the stronger score –
          True emotion, nothing more.”

“Though Steve Sondheim was my student, imitation is not prudent.
You must find your voice, sir,” Hammerstein the Second did implore.
“Learn from Sondheim, learn from Ockie (you’ll learn less if you’re too cocky!);
Learn from Finn and Lin-Manuel, and all the swell who’ve come before;
Oh, so many wisdoms learned by all the artists come before!
          Wisdom and a whole lot more!”

“But I want to break thru boundary, kill clichés and tropes that hound me,
Through to something new,” said I, “not some artistic dinosaur!”
“Ere your nose get out of joint,” quoth Rodgers, “that is quite our point! Learn from all that’s past, then tell the story no one’s heard before!
You can still be you and new, influenced by the ones before,
          All the geniuses before.”

Then I saw! It’s not rejection that will point the right direction;
No, it’s making peace with mainstream shows I always did abhor.
Surely all those shows were nifty, back around, say, 1950,
And it’s just that here today we need another metaphor.
Living in the world today requires its own metaphor,
          A newer, truer metaphor.

Honestly and truth to tell, I couldn’t bear the noxious smell:
Rotted flesh and fetid death, plus grave-worms rank, and other gore!
“I admit my view is narrow, but your presence chills my marrow;
Might you take your leave, now that you did your Scare-The-Artsy chore?”
This I said unto my guests, and they both headed for the door.
          But before, this one thing more –

“We’re connected to each other, for we learn from one another,
But there’s always new frontier for every artist to explore,”
Spake the ghosts of Dick and Ockie, now less scary, not as schlocky,
As they floated eerily to-ward my oaken office door.
“You have learned a lot,” Dick said, “but don’t forget, there’s always more!”
          Thus they left, ‘mid thunder’d roar.

Thunder done, the two now gone, dimensionally moving on.
I sat down once more, returning to my lovely, lonely chore.
At my laptop, once more tapping, no more did I hear that rapping;
Just my tapping, tap-tap-tapping, but no rapping on my door.
Still, I could hear voices now, the voices of the ones before –
          Here for me, and many more.

All the voices now I’m hearing are not here for interfering;
Though I hear this chorus of the great ones’ voices, by the score,
Now I hear them all rejoice to hear I’ve finally found my voice;
With my newfound vision, I shall let my words and music soar!
Standing on the shoulders of the voices of the ones before
          Makes me proud, and so much more!

Check out my horror collection, and my other books, while you're at it! My newest book, Hamilton and the New Revolution: Broadway Musicals in the 21st Century, has just hit Amazon!

We go into rehearsal in mid-August, for Songs for a New World -- we hope. We're keeping an eye on this not-really-over pandemic. Cross your fingers for us, or make an offering to Apollo. Whichever.

Long Live the Musical!

What Do Hamilton, Hermes, Usher, Celie, Evan, Benny, Haywood, and Bonnie & Clyde Have in Common?

Publishing a new book is like Opening Night, except without watching the show, and without seeing anybody afterward.

Last November, I decided it was time to write about some of the amazing musicals of the last decade or so, which I have not yet gotten the privilege of working on. With my past several analysis books, every chapter was about a show I had directed here in St. Louis with New Line Theatre. And I wrote about the shows as we worked on them. Not only was it fun to write about our shows, it also helped me enormously as a director, to force myself to work out and verbalize my ideas and problems.

But I really wanted to study and write about Hamilton. It is a masterpiece of our art form. I also really wanted to dig into The Scottsboro Boys and Dear Evan Hansen. And there were three other shows I thought I should write about, but I didn't know them well enough. Once I got to know them, I had to include all three, Hadestown, The Color Purple, and A Strange Loop.

As I thought about what shows to write about, I noticed that they were all very recent. My last book, Idiots, Heathers, and Squips, explored a bunch of shows that had opened after 2000. So I decided this would be a book about shows just from the last decade or so. Which also meant I could include a couple shows I had worked on, Frank Wildhorn's Bonnie & Clyde and the genuinely wonderful Hands on a Hardbody.

So I went to work, and now I'm done, and it's out in the world. I called it Hamilton and the New Revolution: Broadway Musicals in the 21st Century. (Have you noticed that nonfiction books always have subtitles now?)

It took me about seven months to write, and it was a very weird experience for me. Every time I finished a chapter, it felt like I was closing a show, and I got post-production depression each time. But it was soooooo much fun getting to swim around in these wonderful musicals, and in the accompanying research.

Before I started work on my Hamilton chapter, first I gave myself a three-week crash course on the art of hip-hop writing. I found some really wonderful books, most notably the incredible Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. And I found a bunch of great documentaries; my favorite was a series produced by Questlove called Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America.

Before I started work on my chapter about Hadestown I took a couple weeks to study, read about, and play Roots Music. Before I wrote about The Scottsboro Boys, I read about the actual case, about minstrelsy, and about tap dancing. People sometimes ask me why I don't hire a dramaturg. It's because research is one of my favorite parts of my job!

I learned so much about these shows and the considerable craft and artistry that isn't always obvious. And I learned so much about the accompanying issues and history.

Doing research for The Scottsboro Boys, I was surprised to learn that the history of the blackface tradition in America is really complicated, and that its effects and influence can still be felt in our popular culture today.

Doing research for Bonnie & Clyde, I was stunned at the extreme degree to which all our American institutions broke down and failed during the Depression, government, religion, family, community, the economy.

The Hands on a Hardbody chapter was so much fun to write because it's such a weird premise for a show, and a weird show itself, but also such a powerful, honest, painful statement about Americans' economic pains.

There were two big surprises for me about Dear Evan Hansen. First, I had no idea there were so many people who hate this show, who are offended by the story, and who went so far as to write articles online about how much they hate it -- though in almost every case, they are misreading and misinterpreting the show, and making assumptions about the show and the writers that just aren't true. It's a really weird phenomenon, and I honestly don't understand why it pushes some people's buttons so ferociously. Personally, I think Dear Evan Hansen is close to a masterpiece.

The other DEH surprise was the novel! If you haven't seen it, writer Val Emmich, along with the show's writers, adapted the stage musical into a novel. It's a rare reverse of the usual process. (Don't tell anyone but, back in 1995, I adapted my gay vampire musical In the Blood into a novel. I'm not sure it's any good, but it was an interesting exercise. The DEH guys did it way better.) The big surprise is the novel is GREAT. I totally recommend it.

When I started studying The Color Purple, I came at it as a blank slate. I had never read the novel. I had seen part of the movie once, but hated it. I assumed it was a "chick novel." But in studying the stage musical, I got to see videos of the original Broadway production and the re-imagined revival, I read the novel -- which is now one of my favorite novels I've ever read -- and I watched the movie. I was right about the movie last time (it's terrible), but the novel is a glorious, amazing, adult fairy tale. If you haven't read the novel, you really should. It really is like nothing else.

Working on Hadestown was extra fun for me. I loved learning about Roots Music. I had seen the show and liked it, but it didn't grab me the way some shows do, but I still thought I should include it in this book. And once I got deep down into the guts of the show, I really came to love it. Sure, the original staging by Rachel Chavkin (who also staged The Great Comet of 1812) is really fun and interesting and expressive. Yes, the songs are very cool. And holy shit, that original cast on Broadway is so strong. But the real power here is in the storytelling, in the way Anaïs Mitchell takes these ancient stories and reforms them into stories that resonate with us today. The result is that wonderful theatre contradiction -- it's both Then and Now, both at the same time. (Same with Hamilton.)

Studying and writing about Michael R. Jackson's Pulitzer Prize winning musical A Strange Loop was a wild, trippy, wonderful adventure. Luckily for me, Jackson has been very open in interviews, etc., about his writing process, his intentions behind songs, all of that. If you don't know this show, get to know it. It's really wild and smart and fearless, and really powerful.

I put my Hamilton chapter last, as kind of summing up of where our art form is, and where it's headed. Studying Hamilton was like opening the sepia toned door on Technicolor Oz. Everywhere I looked there was richness and originality and rule-breaking and some of the smartest, best wrought storytelling I've seen in a long time.

But the coolest thing for me was that I took about three weeks to teach myself about the art form of hip-hop music and lyric writing. My mind was blown over and over and over, by the history and evolution of hip-hop. I think the biggest shock for me was to find out that 1. there are a bunch of different kinds of rhyme, not just "perfect" end rhymes, many of which I'd never heard of; 2. American pop lyrics don't use most of those kinds of rhyme; 3. hip-hop uses them all, and not surprisingly, Lin-Manuel Miranda uses them all in Hamilton. I discovered that rhyme is a just a "correspondence" between two words, which is a much broader definition than most of us use.

For example, did you know alliteration is also known as head rhyme? I learned about chain rhymes, mosaic rhymes, apocopated rhymes, transformative rhymes. I published the section about rhyme from my Hamilton chapter, as a blog post a few months ago. Take a look -- it'll blow your mind too.

The other thing I learned was about the language and wordplay of hip-hop, again going back thousands of years in the history of human poetry. Hip-hop lyrics use every imaginable kind of figure of speech, things like metaphors, puns, homonyms and homophones, eponyms, antanaclasis, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. It will come as no surprise that Miranda uses every one of those devices in Hamilton. It's like a masterclass in storytelling, in musical theatre, and in hip-hop.

Now that my book is done, I have some work I have to get done for New Line, and then I'll return to my (now two-volume) history of movie musicals. When I left it, I had just written about The Wall, and next up are Eddie and the Cruisers and Purple Rain. Can't. Wait.

This Sunday, July 24, my books and I will be part of the Broadway Makers Marketplace virtual shopping event Places Pleaser. Stop by and check it out!

After far too long a wait, we New Liners plan to go back into rehearsal again in mid-August. We will have a full season -- that is, providing we can get the people in Missouri's "red" counties to get vaccinated! This will be New Line's 30th season, and it will include Songs for a New World, Head Over Heels, and Urinetown. All three of these shows we're repeating, from three different decades of New Line's history. I can't wait to start making musicals again!

I hope you'll check out my book, Hamilton and the New Revolution: Broadway Musicals in the 21st Century. and all my other musical theatre books too!

And if you're nearby, come see us at New Line Theatre!

Long Live the Musical!

The New Theatre Hero for the #MeToo/BLM Era

Meet high schooler Shellie Shelby, a biracial young woman who faces her fears, summons her powers, and ends up the lead in the school musical -- in a role traditionally cast with a white actor.

I've been wanting for a long time to create a book about theatre in the style of Dr. Seuss. A couple years ago, I talked about it to Zak Farmer, one of our New Line actors, but also a really talented visual artist. He agreed to illustrate the book for me. The result was Shellie Shelby Shares the Spotlight, and Zak and I could not be prouder of it.

I soon settled on the idea of following a high school drama kid through the whole process of putting on a show. I realized if I made the main character a drama newbie, they could be the reader's surrogate as the character navigates the crazy path to opening night. My first instinct was to make the main character a barely fictionalized version of me in high school.

Of course it was.

But then I thought about all the little kids of color who could look at former President Obama and Vice President Harris, and finally see themselves in those roles. And I thought this book of ours can 't be about another white boy getting the lead. Not in the era of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. When I wrote my musical theatre history book fifteen years ago, Strike Up the Band, I was careful to include artists of color, women artists, openly gay artists, artists with disabilities. This time, it was almost more important.

Once our hero Shellie Shelby was born, I made two more preliminary choices. First, her sidekick and best buddy would be the only incidentally gay Jo-Jo McQuill. Second, I decided to populate the story with strong women. So the villains are two socially powerful senior girls, and Shellie's Wise Wizard figure on her Hero's Journey is her drama teacher Mrs. R. Further, I decided that this would be a 42nd Street type story, with the newbie somehow getting thrust into the lead at the end. And though I don't name it specifically, it's pretty clear that the show they're doing is Gypsy and Shellie takes over the role of Mama Rose.

And there's a subtle implied point here that probably only women actors will notice. The teacher Mrs. R. has purposefully chosen a show with really strong female leads. I wanted to hint here at the growing idea of older women mentoring younger women, inspired by organizations like Maestra, the organization "for the women who make the music in the musical theatre industry;" and Know Your Value.

This became very important to me -- that a biracial actor, with natural hair, could easily be cast as Mama Rose. It didn't matter that her hair would look different than Ethel Merman's. It didn't matter that she might not be the same race as the actors playing her daughters. Everybody in the audience knew it was pretend, everybody knew those were actors on stage; nobody thought they were watching real life, nobody thought Shellie was actually Rose Hovick. Those are all silly concerns but the nonwhite actors I know tell me it happens all the time.

The main purpose of the book was to create something fun for tweeners and teens -- and musical theatre nuts like you and me -- that portrayed the process of putting on a high school musical pretty accurately. But I have to admit, I did a little sneaky teaching along the way. Shellie herself gets a little philosophical after auditions:
“Oh, that’s okay, Joe,”
Shellie said,
“I’m still your biggest fan!
The goal is not to Be the Best;
It’s Be the Best You Can!

Besides which,
If we don’t get cast,
That’s out of our control.
It’s not about
Who’s Best or Most;
It’s Who Best Fits the Role.”

And all this wisdom
Shellie shared
(No shallow
Facebook fluff!)
Surprised her more than anyone!
Who knew she knew this stuff?

And Mrs. R gets repeatedly philosophical:
“But what is most exciting,”
Mrs. R. one day related,
“Is the acting that’s
Most honest,
Even when
Exaggerated . . .

The brushstrokes
May be bigger,
And the colors
May be bolder,
But the details
Are as truthful
To the eye of the beholder!”

Couldn't have said it better myself. Oh wait, I wrote that. Here's another of my favorite gems from Mrs. R.:
"We humans need our stories,
To connect and understand,
To bind us to each other,
To our times and to our land.

See, Theatre is Life,” she said.
“It’s Life,” a pause, “Explained.
The more our stories tell the Truth,
The more we’ve entertained!”

Part of that truth is the multi-racial, multi-cultural society we live in. As much as we think about diversity in our casting and on our board at New Line, if not for #MeToo and BLM, I'm honestly not sure I would have been in the right place, with the right understanding, to recognize I should not write our book about yet another white boy. As New Line actor and board member Kevin Corpuz keeps reminding me, Representation Matters.

Our little book is only a very tiny contribution to that idea, but I think/hope it's only the beginning... Zak and I are already planning a sequel for Shellie and Jo-Jo.

Everything's different now. Everything. That's why we knew we had to open our 30th season with Songs for a New World. We really are in a New World now, all of us. There's so much good to embrace and so much evil to rise up against.

We can never forget that we are the storytellers, and we have great responsibility in times like these.

Long Live the Musical!

Billy, Put Down That Phylactery

I am on a lifelong crusade. Okay, let's be honest, I'm on several. But the one that's relevant here is my crusade against Comedy Abuse in the musical theatre. There's a lot of it. A lot of directors and actors don't understand the new shows being written in this new Golden Age for the art form.

Por exemplo...

Too many production of Bill Finn's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee completely misunderstand the show. There, I said it.

It's not a wacky spoof. It's a not a parody. It's not sketch comedy. It's not silly. It's a serious social comedy. The original cast in New York was not made up of comedians; it was made up of actors. This isn't a show about mugging to the audience, about making funny faces and using funny voices. It's not about gags and bits.

The reason this show is so great and so beloved is that it's so truthful.

The show works best when it's at its most honest, and most truthful. We should feel for all these kids, largely because we recognize our adult selves in them. We've all been one of these kids; most of us have been several of these kids. When Barfee tries to engage Olive in conversation, we all feel his fear of rejection. We cheer when Marcy breaks free of the chains of the expectations of others, because we've all been held captive by those same chains at one point of another in our lives.

Spelling Bee is a serious comedy about the unnecessary, even perverse, pressures our adult society places on all of us. Like the Peanuts comic strip, Spelling Bee is not really about kids at all; it uses kids to explore funny and interesting truths about adults and our adult world. When Peanuts debuted in the early 1950s, it was the first Beat comic strip, exploring philosophy, politics, religion, psychiatry, peer pressure, sports, education, and so much more.

We laugh along with Spelling Bee because we recognize the reality in these poor kids being expected to withstand adult pressures, and the reality of how childishly adults can behave.

Like Camelot, Fiddler on the Roof, and lots of other musicals, the first half of Spelling Bee is all about establishing these bizarre but charming characters, and then the second half turns a little more serious. Most of these kids have difficult home lives in one way another, which explains some of their behavior. We can see that Logainne's dads love her, but is she an emotionally healthy kid? Not entirely.

It should be clear to anyone that "The I Love You Song" doesn't belong in a wacky spoof. This is a searing, raw expression of emotion and it catches the audience -- we get caught up in the amazing musical counterpoint of the voices, and the endless repetitions of "I Love You" until we get to the shattering end of the song, and we're smacked back to reality. We've forgotten Olive's word was chimerical, and when she repeats the definition, we remember -- her loving parents are just her fantasy.

Funny faces and voices are never as funny as the truth about human nature, and Spelling Bee is chock full of truth, about parenting, about exceptional kids, about being Other, about competition, about expectations, about the emotional roller coaster of childhood and the pressures of the adult rat race.

As I wrote in another post, "Many young actors and directors treat these new shows like they're all Nunsense. These folks operate under two misconceptions. The first is that there is essentially just one kind of Funny, that Nunsense and Urinetown are fundamentally the same animal. Wrong. The second misconception is that the best way to approach comedy is to make it funny, to force it into comedy submission. Wrong again."

I always tell our actors the same thing in blocking rehearsals: if you think of an idea that's really funny, please discard it; but if you think of an idea that really reveals character or story, please give it a try. When we know the material is great, we should follow it, serve it, not compete with it. As the great Howard Ashman wrote in his introduction to the Little Shop script, "When Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable."

Behind the laughs, behind Panch's deliciously inappropriate example sentences (and what they reveal about his obviously neurotic worldview), there is real depth and real humanity to this story.

The kids who leave the Bee happy are the ones who come to an understanding of themselves and the world around them. Leaf discovers that the joy of the adventure, the journey, is way more important than winning or not. Marcy discovers that she doesn't have to follow the path others lay out for her; she can follow her own path and forge her own future. Barfee learns to consider the effects of his actions on others, probably for the first time in his life. Olive discovers that coming in second is pretty great too.

To some extent, the narrative arc of Spelling Bee is watching these kids and these adults either find enlightenment or fail to find it. Chip and Logainne have a way to go yet before they find enlightenment. And Rona really seems to be stuck in the past, in her single triumph. but the others are on their way.

Okay, maybe not Mr. Panch.

This experience of participating in the Bee has taught each of these characters something about themselves; and watching The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee teaches each of us in the audience something about ourselves as well, because we see ourselves, our quirks, our own epic fails, our hangups, our strengths and weaknesses, in these kids, these incredibly well-drawn, intricately conceived characters.

When Spelling Bee, its story, and its characters are treated with respect it's both a hilarious comedy and an emotionally satisfying story about the misfits of the world finally getting their due recognition and saying Fuck You to the religion of competition.

Every outrageous comedy of any quality works best when it's performed most honestly. Shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Little Shop of Horrors, Cry-Baby, Heathers, Head Over Heels, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Rocky Horror, and lots of others, are at their funniest when the stakes are really high and the characters take it all really seriously. Watch the Rocky Horror film version, and you'll see that the actors never make funny faces at the camera, never stick in bits or gags; they play the characters and the action completely seriously, and that's why it's funny. The higher the stakes, the more serious the motivations and intentions, the funnier it gets.

The brilliant comedian and actor John Cleese once said in an interview that he had learned that the funniest thing in the world is watching someone try not to laugh, and the saddest thing is watching someone try not to cry. And my corollary is that the effort to be funny is the least funny thing in the world. If I can see you trying to make me laugh, that's not nearly as funny as if you're portraying a truthful human moment that I recognize the truth in. It's much more fun for me to discover what's funny than for you to tell me what's funny.

And by the way, truthful human moments are all over Little Shop, Bat Boy, Rocky, Spelling Bee, and the rest. But lots of less inspired productions trample all over those moments in their desperate attempts to Be Funny and Get Laughs.

Those are the wrong goals. The right goal is to tell the truth. That's why actors are on stage. That's why the audience bought tickets. We're the storytellers. It's our job to tell the truth.

Long Live the Musical!

Share the Joy: In Defense of Lost Horizon

New Line Theatre will have a 2021-22 season! I will get my life back! Woohoo!

But we don't go back into rehearsal till August. So for now, I'm still solely a writer, and I have three projects I'm working on. One is a new book of musical theatre analysis, Hamilton and the New Revolution; the second is a new book of history and analysis of movie musicals, Play / Back; and the third is a sequel to the much beloved Shelly Shelby Shares the Spotlight.

As I work on my movie musical book, I keep encountering movies I've heard of but never seen, and some I've never even heard of. And also, a few that have always been considered shitty, but I love them.

Case in point: The 1973 musical fantasy drama Lost Horizon has been dismissed and ridiculed for decades as a gigantic and ridiculous debacle. But it’s not true.

It’s a fascinating film that may have been six years too late or a couple decades too early, but there’s so much about it that’s interesting and so much that’s right. Maybe had it opened during the Summer of Love, the reception would have been far better. Maybe if Cabaret hadn’t just changed the movie musical forever, Lost Horizon might have been accepted on its own terms.

Here's the 1973 trailer for the film. Beware the 137 minute version on Amazon Prime -- it cuts two songs and a huge dance number! The DVD and Blu-Ray have the full 149 minute version.

The film opens almost in documentary style, as a political thriller, as Americans and other Westerners evacuate Baskul, a fictional stand-in for Kabul, Afghanistan, the government of which has clearly fallen. The last five people to go, get on board an old, shaky plane, and before takeoff, their plane is hijacked and the pilot killed. The plane crashes in the Himalayas, and soon they are rescued by the inhabitants of a hidden place naturally sheltered by mountains from the harsh weather. Soon we find out this is Shangri-La (“Valley of the Blue Moon"), a beautiful, Edenic place, with amazing architecture and lush greenery everywhere -- hidden away in the middle of the Himalayas.

From this point on, the movie becomes a very different story, a lesson (for the characters and for us) in a more countercultural, more Eastern philosophy of living.

The conflict at the center of the story is that some of the five central characters didn’t like their other lives and are delighted to be here; while the others very much want to get back to the “real world.” Conway is the only passenger who immediately realizes that this is a place of learning, and that he belongs here in some way. When he first sees Shangri-La, Conway says to Chang, “It’s like coming home.” The whole story is about what scholar Joseph Campbell would call Following Your Bliss, finding the right path for you and staying on it.

Particularly in 1973, this was a radical idea. The Sixties were over. The counterculture had mostly lost. And Lost Horizon was a response to that zeitgeist. It was an utterly earnest and sincere movie in an age of dark irony and cynicism, so it was called silly, shallow, stupid, inane, vapid, and lots of other names. It’s not any of those things, but critics and audiences judged the movie for not being what they thought it ought to be, instead of judging it for what it is meant to be.

In 1933, British author James Hilton wrote the novel Lost Horizon, and after a slow start, it became a bestseller, selling millions of copies over the years, introducing the world to Shangri-La. In 1937, Frank Capra made a movie version, now widely considered a classic. But despite a strong performance from Ronald Colman as Conway, it’s hard to watch today, with its inappropriately art deco architecture, mannered acting, awkwardly slangy dialogue, cringey gay jokes, really bad old-age makeup, and uncomfortable cultural condescension. In 1956, there was an ill-fated Broadway musical called Shangri La, with book and lyrics by James Hilton, Jerome Lawrence, and Robert E. Lee, and music by Harry Warren. It closed after twenty-one performances.

The 1973 musical film remake of Lost Horizon was based both on the novel and the earlier film. The all-star casting was impressive, with Peter Finch as Richard Conway, a diplomat; Sally Kellerman as Sally Hughes, a Newsweek photographer; George Kennedy as Sam Cornelius, a failed businessman; Michael York as George Conway, a London reporter; Bobby Van as Harry Lovett, a failed comedian. And as inhabitants of Shangri-La, Liv Ullmann as Catherine, the schoolteacher; Olivia Hussey as Maria, the dancer; James Shigeta as Brother To-Lenn, a young priest; John Gielgud as Chang, an older priest; and Charles Boyer as the High Lama. Unfortunately for today’s audience, Gielgud plays Chang in Asian “yellowface” makeup with prosthetic eyelids; it's fairly subtle but you can't miss it. On the other hand, the High Lama is revealed to be originally from Europe, so that casting makes sense.

The structure of Lost Horizon is telling. We start in the real world, immersed in violence and politics, and through acts of political violence, our five protagonists end up in a fantasy world. The filmmakers have taken us methodically through the process of getting there, taking us from a familiar world to a new and unfamiliar world.

There wasn’t all that much genuinely radical about Lost Horizon, other than the courage of its idealistic convictions, but apparently that was the issue. Most mainstream musicals had always reinforced the dominant social values of their audiences. This was a musical that pointedly rejected the dominant social values of 1973 America. When Conway’s brother George says to their host, “We all wish to return to civilization as soon as possible,” Chang replies, “Are you so certain you are away from it?”

The creators of this story, the novelist James Hilton, and the 1973 screenwriter Larry Kramer, were saying something of value in this film. Even if people thought the hippies went too far, or didn’t go far enough, or simply failed to change anything, the teachers of Shangri-La were warning us not to reject everything we learned in the Sixties – community, brotherhood, compassion, enlightenment, connection. The High Lama tells Conway they have only one rule in Shangri-La: Be Kind.

Each of the main characters is introduced to us at a moment of maximum stress, a time when everyone’s true character emerges. We see how the five deal with fear, crisis, adversity, possible death. These characters are partially revealed to us long before they reach Shangri-La.

And they are further revealed as each one of them follows the classic Hero’s Journey, though in this story, their journeys are interior ones. That’s why they’re here. There is the call to adventure, which they initially resist but ultimately accept, they navigate various obstacles which reveal their true selves and teach them lessons, and finally, each must face themselves and gain new wisdom.

Chang says to Conway, “Like everyone else, you are on a pilgrimage through life. By chance, part of your voyage of discovery is here.” One by one, four of the protagonists learn to give of themselves, to share themselves – but not George, who remains the unconverted cynic and wants only to get home. The other four are each healed ultimately by connecting.

Shangri-La works as a powerful metaphor for human enlightenment. It’s been there all the time, but hidden. It’s hard to find and the path leading to it is rough and treacherous. To be sure, Lost Horizon doesn’t supply us with any concrete answers, only questions.

The title refers to the nautical term “host horizon,” which means so far out at sea that you can’t see land, so you can’t tell by sight which direction is which. As an existential metaphor, that certainly describes the five travelers in the story, and perhaps human civilization in general, in the 1930s, in the 1970s, and now.

I highly recommend the novel and the 1973 film. They're both really wonderful.

Long Live the (Movie) Musical!

The Rodgers & Hammerstein Sound

So once in a while, I write parody lyrics. As a working writer and lyricist, I think of it as good exercise. Some of these parodies are surely funny only to me. But I always try very hard to stick exactly to the rhythm and scansion of the original lyric, and to comically dip into the original lyric now and then just for fun. Here's one I wrote during the Great Pandemic, on a totally random whim. I just came across it, and it made me laugh, so I thought I should share...

If you really love R&H, don't yell at me. I did once, too. It's all in good fun. Well, sort of.

The Rodgers & Hammerstein Sound
(to the tune of “My Favorite Things”
from The Sound of Music,
with apologies to Dick and Ockie)

Fox trots and two-steps and
Old-fashioned waltzes;
Homey clichés point you
Right where the schmaltz is.
No more of Dick’s former jazz can be found –
This is the Rodgers & Hammerstein Sound.

Major for good guys and
Minor for baddies,
Racialized dialects,
Gruff, distant daddies;
Plain, simple, natural lyrics abound
Here in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Sound.

All well-intentioned,
Though borderline racist,
Quite accident’ly
(Whatever the case is);
Well-meaning libr’rals on high moral ground,
Making that Rodgers & Hammerstein Sound.

Slightly sexist,
(It’s the place and time);
It’s Father Knows Best and So Mother Complies,
And all to a perfect rhyme!

Though their shows might
Deal in darkness;
By the end, it’s fine.
We’re back to the foxtrots and waltzes and all –
From Rodgers and Hammerstein!

And as an extra added bonus, I'll share this one too, which I wrote one dismal day when I was feeling a little more cynical than usual...

Sure smells nice;
But it grows on a mountain.
Don’t think I’m
Gonna climb
Up a mountain for you!

Blossoms are no way to
Truly show
Love, you know.
It’s bullshit.

End this nonsense forever!

I truly can't help myself.
Long Live the Musical!

Strong to the Finich: In Defense of Popeye the Musical

I’m working on a new book called Play / Back: A Different History of Movie Musicals, and it’s been such a fun exercise for two reasons. First, I’m discovering incredibly weird, cool movie musicals I had never heard of before, like Madam Satan, Volga-Volga, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Zachariah, and lots of others.

Second, I’m really studying films that I have seen before, but I’m seeing them with entirely new eyes, and finding so many wonderful new details. Especially with those films that I love that the world mostly hates, this is such a great chance to show people just how cool some of them are. Very much like what I do with my musical theatre books.

As one example…

Maverick film director Robert Altman’s 1980 oddball, live-cartoon movie musical Popeye is often on “Worst Films” lists, but don’t believe it. Popeye is a virtuoso exercise in style, coming as close as anyone had (up till then) in creating a cartoon with live actors on concrete sets. In every detail Altman’s Popeye is relentlessly true to its source material, evidently too close for some critics, who had never seen a film that came so close to the rubber-band physics and gravity-defying hijinks of these 1930s comic strip characters.

In retrospect, Altman (M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park, et al.) was the only right artistic choice, an infamously nonconformist film director to make a nonconforming film (nobody had ever done a “live-cartoon” like this before), about one of the greatest icons of nonconformity in American pop culture, Popeye the Sailor Man.

Hollywood super-producer Robert Evans hired award-winning cartoonist and satirist Jules Feiffer to write the screenplay, and Altman lobbied hard to hire quirky (arguably washed-up) pop songwriter Harry Nilsson to write the music and lyrics. In Altman’s smartest preproduction move, he hired Fellini’s favorite cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who had also filmed Fosse’s All That Jazz. Sharon Kinney was hired to choreograph, with Hovey Burgess credited as “circus choreographer,” and Lou Wills credited as “dance style creator for Mr. Williams.”

The production design by Wolf Kroeger captured with breathtaking accuracy the original cartoon’s run-down, physics-defying disrepair of all the buildings, the dock, the boats, etc. Kroeger and Altman discovered concrete parallels for every device and convention of the original cartoons. The Sweethaven set took an international crew of more than 150 construction workers seven months to build, completely from scratch. When they finished, the village consisted of nineteen buildings, including a hotel, a schoolhouse, a store, a post office, a church, and a tavern. The set still stands as a tourist attraction. In Malta.

The fearless cast of character actors obviously studied the cartoons and committed utterly to the quirky physical and vocal attributes of the cartoon characters. Popeye’s ensemble cast included Robin Williams as Popeye, Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, Paul L. Smith as Bluto; and a group of utterly committed, skilled character actors, Paul Dooley as Wimpy, Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy, Richard Libertini as Geezil, Donald Moffat as The Taxman, Bill Irwin as Ham Gravy, Linda Hunt as Mrs. Oxheart, and lots of others.

Many of the citizens of Sweethaven, especially those who had to do crazy physical stunts, were recruited from European circuses, primarily the Pickle Family Circus. Every actor was tasked with creating a distinctive walk and physicality for their character, and that simple detail goes so far in giving the film a weird almost-reality.

Screenwriter Jules Feiffer’s smartest choice was to give both Popeye and Olive families, to give both of these usually two-dimensional, single-trait characters some backstory, some history, some humanity, some stakes.

Allowing Popeye to have backstory, to have a childhood, to have emotions, lends the two-dimensional “sailor man” real humanity, especially in the hands of Robin Williams – who nobody knew yet in 1980 was an even better serious actor than he was a genius comedian. Altman and Williams knew it wouldn’t work to imitate the cartoon character, or to caricature the original. Like any smart director and actor in this unusual situation, they knew the key was to understand Popeye’s inner life, backstory, relationships, wants, needs, etc.; and Williams played him as he’d play any other character, not consciously as a cartoon, but as Popeye the Sailor Man.

The whole film is so wild and weird that people routinely overlook Robin William’s sensitive, subtle performance, as the narrative eye of the hurricane, the glue that holds all these wacky characters together.

Altman solved the Chinese puzzle box of the film musical, defusing that stubborn dissonance between the reality of film and the unreality of musicals, by draining the reality of all its reality. Other filmmakers had sort of done this, with reality-defying stories (Lost Horizon, Rocky Horror), or reality-defying forms (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, All That Jazz), or reality-defying casting (Bugsy Malone, The Muppet Movie), or a reality-defying universe in which the story unfolds (Pufnstuf, Forbidden Zone, Shinbone Alley). But they all still had elements of reality “grounding” them.

In Altman’s Popeye, reality is absent.

Every inch of Sweethaven is stretched, skewed, and seemingly contrary to the laws of physics – as are the personalities, physicality, even the speech patterns, of these characters. Columnist Eric Spitznagel wrote in Vanity Fair that Popeye is “the cinematic equivalent of eating too many pot brownies.” Exactly. This is an alternate reality in which singing doesn’t seem any stranger than anything else does.

The songs in Popeye are the inverse of musical theatre songs, dissonant, upside-down, like almost-familiar Bizarro World versions of well-made theatre and film songs. And yet they still fulfill the functions of musical theatre songs, but often in sly, back-door, sneak attacks, quite often telling us things by not telling us things, as in Olive’s un-love song, “He’s Large.”

Lots of people would call Popeye escapist entertainment, but this oddball film nicely illustrates the Big Lie of Escapism. The truth is that audiences don’t want escape; they want connection.

Sweethaven, as distorted and cartoony as it may be, is a funhouse microcosm of the real world at large; and Popeye as protagonist stands in for us, watching the insanity of the world swirl around him, feeling disconnected, feeling like the Other, having to learn all new rules. (It’s the moment that the concept musical Songs for a New World is all about.)

It would have been so easy to mock these characters, mock their community, to condescend to the audience; but Altman and Company never did that, from the obvious commitment of so many veteran character actors, to Van Dyke Parks’ dynamic orchestral underscoring for the film’s climactic battle, to the exquisitely detailed production design and gorgeous cinematography. This is a serious comedy, about how easy it is to be corrupted in a corrupt society.

Popeye opened in 1980. The budget ballooned to $11 million, then $13.5 million, then finally $23 million. To hedge their bet, Paramount took on Disney as a co-producer. Ultimately, Popeye made about $60 million, one of the top ten moneymaking films of the year, but Paramount had expected more, so it was declared a flop.

Not cool, Paramount.

Watch this movie. It’s really wonderful.

Now back to my book...

Long Live the Musical!

Tick Tock Goes the Clock! 25 Years!

Since the pandemic has forced me to focus on only one of my two passions, writing about musicals, but not making them, at least for a while still, an interesting thought crossed my artsy brain last night.

It was twenty-five years ago that I wrote my first book of musical theatre analysis!

The spark that started it was the still very new Sondheim Review (1994-2016), a wonderful magazine all about Uncle Steve's shows! For one of the earliest issues, the editor Paul Salsini asked me to write a piece about New Line's first production (of three!) of Sondheim's Assassins. It was only a short piece, but I found that I loved writing about what makes a musical tick!

So I approached a bunch of publishers about writing a whole book, all of whom said No, except Lisa Barnett at Heinemann Publishing, who asked me for three more chapters, then agreed to publish a whole book of my analysis essays, eventually called From Assassins to West Side Story, published in 1996.

Until then, it had never occurred to me that:  a. I could write about musicals in that way, b. anybody would want to read what I had to say; and c. anybody would ever pay me to explore cool musicals.

Two books were my initial inspirations, Stephen Banfield's excellent book Sondheim's Broadway Musicals; and Joseph Swain's The Broadway Musical. Both books were largely focused on musical analysis, and together with my music degree from Harvard, I learned how to dig deep down into a theatre score. I had also read several books digging into great plays. I realized I wanted to combine that kind of exploration of the text, subtext, and context, together with the musical exploration of Banfield and Swain. But it was also important to me that this wasn't a book for academics; it was a book for people who love musicals.

And I ended up sort of creating a new genre or subgenre -- analyses of musicals that are as serious and in-depth as the copious analyses of the plays of Shakespeare, O'Neill, or Suzan-Lori Parks. And to my surprise, once my first book was published, I was instantly considered "an expert" by strangers; and I could get access to people and stuff like never before. Thanks, Lisa!

And now twenty-five years later, I am, by necessity, a full-time writer for a while, working on my eighth book of analysis! And looking back, it's overwhelming to see how much I've written about so many musicals, and knowing that literally tens of thousands of people have read my books and know what I think about musicals. Take a look...

From Assassins to West Side Story, 1996, covers Assassins, Cabaret, Carousel, Company, Godspell, Gypsy, How to Succeed, Into the Woods, Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables, Man of La Mancha, Merrily We Roll Along, My Fair Lady, Pippin, Sweeney Todd, and West Side Story.

Deconstructing Harold Hill, 1999, covers Ragtime, Camelot, Chicago, Passion, The Music Man, March of the Falsettos, Sunday in the Park with George, and The King and I.

Rebels with Applause, 2001, covers Hair, Rent, Oklahoma!, Pal Joey, Anyone Can Whistle, Floyd Collins, Jacques Brel, The Cradle Will Rock, Songs for a New World, and The Ballad of Little Mikey.

Let the Sun Shine In, 2003, covers Hair.

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, 2011, covers The Wild Party, Grease, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, I Love My Wife, Bat Boy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and High Fidelity.

Literally Anything Goes, 2019, covers The Threepenny Opera, Anything Goes, The Nervous Set, The Fantasticks, Zorbá, Two Gentlemen Of Verona, The Robber Bridegroom, Evita, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Kiss Of The Spider Woman, A New Brain, Reefer Madness, Bukowsical, and Love Kills.

Idiots, Heathers, and Squips, 2020, covers bare, Urinetown, Sweet Smell of Success, Jerry Springer the Opera, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, Heathers, and Be More Chill.

My new book is called Hamilton and the New Revolution: Broadway Musicals in the 21st Century, and it will cover Hamilton, Hadestown, The Scottsboro Boys, Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, A Strange Loop, Bonnie & Clyde, Hands on a Hardbody, and maybe a couple more. I think I should be done with it in about six months.

I also want to write a sequel to my horror fiction collection Night of the Living Show Tunes. The response to it has been so wonderful, and I do have ideas for more stories, so...

Also, Zak Farmer, veteran New Liner, and the illustrator for our book Shellie Shelby Shares Spotlight, wants to do another picture book.

So I've got lots of writing projects. I'm kinda stalled on my novel My Cat and I Wrote a Musical and Then He Murdered Me, so I've put that aside for now. I'm working, on and off, on a couple new musicals too. But Sweet Apollo, I miss being in rehearsal, I miss our audience, I miss backstage emergencies, I miss reviews, I miss hearing, "That wasn't anything like I expected!" in the lobby.

But so many people have it so much worse than me right now. At least my "pandemic unemployment" payments are (barely) paying my rent, food, and utilities. I have a decent apartment. I have my wonderful cat Hamilton to keep me company. I still think about musicals all the time. I have lots of artsy friends to call. I'm doing okay.

If you're missing our beloved art form as much as I am, maybe one or more of my books might help a little. You never know.

But meanwhile, stay safe, and get vaccinated as soon as you can. The sooner we're all vaccinated, the sooner we can all come together again in that most necessary and nurturing of human rituals, gathering in the dark to tell stories.

Someday soon, we all will be together, if the Fates allow.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're wondering, "Tick Tock Goes the Clock" was a song and dance cut from Promises, Promises. The dance half came back, now called "Tick Tock," in Company.

Organize Your Information, ‘Til We Rise to the Occasion

I created this blog on January 1, 2007. Not long ago, it surpassed one million visitors. That's more than a bit mind-blowing, the idea that so many people have read my opinions, discoveries, revelations, both here and in my books. Thank you!

The initial purpose of the blog was to document our creation process on each show we produce, both our progress through the process of learning music and blocking, polishing the show, etc.; but also my progress as I discover what makes the show tick, and also how to tell this story as clearly as possible on a stage for an audience. I thought a chronicle of all that, including our stumbles and wrong paths, would be of use to other musical theatre artists, particularly since a lot of our work is less mainstream, more like mainstream-adjacent. 

I also realized that between shows, I could write posts about other topics related to the musical theatre.  There's nothing I love more than talking or writing about musicals. Eventually I had written so many of those posts that I created a Subject Index for my blog, so it would be easier to find them.

A year ago, as we were thrust into the Great Pandemic of 2020, as the theatres were shut down (March 14, I'll never forget that date), I fell apart. Making musicals is literally the only thing I know how to do. But with the help of pharmaceuticals, weed, and my cat Hamilton, I found a new balance. For right now, I'm not a director; I will be again, but not right now. Today, I'm a writer.

So I wrote, a lot, and ended up publishing five books in 2020. And now I've started on a new book, a new collection of analysis and background essays, called Hamilton and the New Revolution: Broadway Musicals in the 21st Century. I've already written first drafts of chapters on Hamilton, Hadestown, Bonnie & Clyde, Hands on a Hardbody,, and I'm finishing up my chapter on The Scottsboro Boys.

This is not my normal life, no, but at least it's a piece of my normal life. I've been writing about musicals since 1996, but it's always been my side gig. Now it's my gig. And so, I figure my blog should shift focus just a little, and so I'll keep a chronicle here of my process in my writing this book and exploring these cool shows. I know for sure I plan to write chapters on Come From Away, The Color Purple, Dear Evan Hansen, and A Strange Loop. Not sure if there will be room for a couple others, hopefully Kinky Boots and Something Rotten, I could list more...

I wrote a post recently about one of my amazing discoveries while exploring Hamilton, but there have been so many discoveries! I genuinely believe it's a masterpiece, and that it ranks as one of the Great American Musicals, alongside Show Boat, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Gypsy, Hair, Company, Follies, Assassins, Ragtime, and The Scottsboro Boys. 

So I thought, for anyone who loves these shows I'm writing about, here are the cool books I've found that have helped me with my research so far. As always, the more I find, the more I learn, the more I love these shows. As much as I loved Hamilton from the first time I saw it, I love it now on a whole different level after the research I did into the form, structure, variety, and roots of hip-hop music.

To write intelligently about Hamilton, I realized I needed to know more than I did about hip-hop. And to my great surprise, I found a genuinely wonderful academic book that taught me all the basics of how the art form of rap operates, what its rules are, what its roots are, how it's evolved, what kinds of rhymes and other wordplay the form uses.

Later, I found out this is a highly respected work about the form. It's called Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, by Adam Bradley. This book taught me so much about rap, and its connection back to so many other poetic forms through history and around the world; and all that in turn taught me so much about Hamilton. I also read Rhyme's Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture, by David Caplan, also a great book. Watching the show after that was different.

While writing my chapter about Hamilton, of course I read Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. But I also found some interesting anthologies: Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture and Identity, edited by Sarah Whitfield; Hamilton and the Law: Reading Today's Most Contentious Legal Issues through the Hit Musical, edited by Lisa A. Tucker; and Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical Is Restaging America's Past, edited by Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter. I disagreed with some of the essays, but all three books were really interesting and helped me think about the show.

Two mini-series I found on Amazon Prime were very helpful in understanding the roots of hip-hop. The six-episode series  A Journey Through American Music, is hosted by Morgan Freeman. It's incredibly interesting and it includes a lot of wonderfully long musical clips of some of the greatest American musicians. On the more intellectual side is Questlove's six-episode series Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America, which takes one iconic song each episode and explores the song, the artist, the social and political context of the moment, why the song was important, how the song moved the art form forward, etc. There are lots of interviews with rap artists, including lots of wisdom and insight from Questlove, who I have discovered is awesome.

When I finished my Hamilton chapter, I decided to explore Hadestown next. I still had that weird transition period when I didn't want to let go of the last show yet. Very much like closing a run and starting rehearsals for the next show. It's always jarring to my Inner Artsy. One good thing about the pandemic -- that transition is easier when I'm only researching and writing about the show.

But damn, I do miss creating shows

I eventually turned myself to Hadestown. I had seen it and enjoyed it, but I admit I was a little afraid that I wouldn't know how to write about this sui generis show. I soon found several ways in, and I see that it's much richer and more carefully built than it seems.

I took two tracks this time. I watched other musical versions of this Orpheus and Eurydice story over time; and after my mind-opening crash course in hip hop, I dove into a crash course in American blues, jazz, and folk. After those two tracks gave me a good understanding of the materials, I looked much more closely at what these brilliant women had built with those materials. Luckily for me (and for you), the show's author and composer Anaïs Mitchell kept an artistic diary of the entire process, of what changed, what got cut, and also why, published as Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown. It's a real treat to go on this journey with the show's creator to see how it got to the form we know. Especially because she doesn't write conventional theatre songs.

I started my trip way down Hadestown with several volumes from NPR's very cool series of books: The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Blues, by David Evans; The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz,, by Loren Schoenberg; and The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to American Folk Music, by Kip Lornell. All really interesting, all of them revealing interesting things to me about the Hadestown score, and the function of the songs.

My Orpheus track started with a refresher on Greek mythology, with an excellent book, From Savagery to Civilization: The Power of Greek Mythology, by Vincent Hannity. I also found quite easily, on Amazon Prime and on YouTube, other musical versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. So I watched Monteverdi's 1607 opera L'Orfeo; then Gluck's 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice; and finally, the version I'd been waiting to see, Offenbach's very funny, very adult 1858 opera Orpheus in the Underworld.

Now I'm not saying you have to watch all that to understand Hadestown, but honestly, it did help me understand a lot about the story itself and choices that Mitchell made. And besides, I had heard of the older pieces but never seen them, so I'm glad I've seen them now. (I didn't love the first two.)

Eventually I had to leave Hadestown behind. (I was careful not to look back!) But on a side note, I did discover I can do the Hades voice pretty well. Just sayin'. Next stop was an even darker one.

I saw Kander and Ebb's final masterpiece The Scottsboro Boys during its very short stay on Broadway, and it repeatedly blew my mind. It must've been how audiences felt in 1966 after seeing the original Cabaret. I felt like I'd been psychically beaten up while also wildly entertained, all at the same time -- all while learning a really ugly history lesson that sadly, tells us all we need to know about America today.

If you don't know the show, it tells the horrific true story of nine young black men being falsely accused of rape by two white women, in Alabama, in 1931. And the show tells that story in the form of a high-energy, virtuoso minstrel show. It's overwhelming in every possible way. And it's brilliant.

So to figure what makes this show tick, despite feeling a bit icky about it, I knew I had to dive into the world of blackface and minstrel shows. But to my surprise, it ended up being a really fascinating trip. It's all so much more complex than I ever imagined. I started with the outstanding book Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen. They explore the history and evolution of the form, but more importantly for my purposes, all the social forces that created this form, that kept it alive for so long, and all the inherent contradictions, that all tie directly to America today. I really loved this book.

All the experts in this field of study seemed to agree that Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America, by Robert C Toll, was the best book on the subject. So I read that next, and they're right. It's a really detailed, insightful look at the entire history of blackface and minstrelsy. I also found useful information in Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, by Eric Lott.

I wanted to see if there was anything important I was missing in terms of tap and the other dance forms of minstrelsy and early musical comedy. I found two excellent books that helped with that, the terrific Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History, by Constance Valis Hill, the best book on the history of dance in early musical theatre I've found; and also the very good Hoofing on Broadway: A History of Show Dancing, by Richard Kislan.

But behind the show biz is a very ugly reality. And even though I know the show takes some liberties with small details (as any good storytelling must), I still wanted to know the actual unbelievable story, from beginning to end. And everywhere I looked for opinions, everybody seemed to agree the best account of the case is Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, by Dan T. Carter. It's an excellent book, and unfortunately, a compelling thriller, but also such a sad, ugly story.

Sometime this year (I hope), I'll have this new book finished and you can see the various conclusions and connections I've drawn. While you're waiting, you could always read my recent collection of essays analyzing other 21st century musicals, Idiots, Heathers, and Squips: The New Golden Age of the Musical Theatre, digging into into eleven musicals that represent the astonishing variety and fearlessness of this new Golden Age, including bare, Urinetown, Sweet Smell of Success, Jerry Springer the Opera, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, Heathers, and Be More Chill.

I love writing about musical theatre, and I'm thankful that people like you love reading about musical theatre. Thank you.

Long Live the Musical! And Stay Safe!