Happiness, Pleasure, Contentment, Serenity, Joy, Bliss, and Glee!

It's always a long and winding road, from our first talks about Next Season, to the moment when we publicly announce it. (Full Disclosure: we're already talking about Next Next Season, 2020-2021, which will be our 30th!)

Some years, the first plan ends up being the final plan. But not often. We always announce what we're thinking about for Next Season at our annual Holiday Dinner (come join us this year!), but the 2019-2020 lineup has changed again and again and again...

We were hoping to do this particularly cool new show, but the writers really aren't happy with their show, and they're planning some fairly big rewrites. It's gonna be a while. Dowdy and I had also discussed doing a season of three repeats, maybe including Return to the Forbidden Planet, Rent, and for a brief moment, Hands on a Hardbody was in the mix too.

But none of those will be in our upcoming season.

A tour of Rent is coming to the Fox in February, so we can't get those rights. And it just wouldn't feel right to do Hardbody without Anna Skidis, who's in grad school in Texas right now. And coincidentally, longtime New Liner Chris Strawhun will be directing his own production of Forbidden Planet for KTK Productions in March, so you can still see it...

Not too long ago, I found out we could get the rights to Head Over Heels! If I remember right, after that, every possible season lineup we discussed included HOH. It's one of those shows I had a really strong gut feeling about.

At one point, Dowdy and I decided to look at the top-selling shows in our history, and see if any of those needed another look.

Urinetown immediately grabbed me. I saw that show in 2001 on Broadway, and we produced it in 2007 in the ArtLoft blackbox theatre. Eever since we lost that space, I've been telling everybody that if we ever got back into a blackbox again, there were two shows I wanted to return to -- Bat Boy and Urinetown. In both New Line productions, we used the entire theatre, all around, through, and among the audience, as well as on the stage -- a lot like the recent New York production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. That kind of staging brings a ridiculous amount of energy to the performances. Both those productions were overwhelming in the best ways.

And now here we, back in a blackbox. We'll save Bat Boy for another season, but Urinetown really felt right, not just for us, not just for our theatre, but also for our times. Also, we just recently produced the even weirder Yeast Nation, also written by the Urinetown team, Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann. And Greg told me that New Line is the only professional company to produce both their shows!

During discussions, we talked about the shows our patrons most often ask us to bring back. The list is always essentially the same, with very little variation -- Cry-Baby, Rent, Forbidden Planet, and Hardbody.

That left us with Cry-Baby, Head Over Heels, and Urinetown. All three shows about misfits trying to find their place and their way in the world, all three shows really tuned in to the current political and cultural zeitgeist. So we lived with that lineup for a while. And eventually, we knew that was our season.

But weirdly enough, back in 2010 and 2011, I almost didn't discover Cry-Baby. I love John Waters' movies, but this just wasn't on my radar.

The 2008 Broadway production was really bad. The director fundamentally misunderstood the world of John Waters, and he turned our heroes, the leather-jacketed Drapes, into really nasty assholes. But that's who the audience is supposed to connect with in a John Waters story -- the misfits! So the reviews were mixed to bad, and it ran three months. Nobody wanted to make a cast album.

But then one day, I was thinking to myself what a shame it was that the Cry-Baby musical was such a piece of shit! That story could be so great as a musical! And then I stopped myself. Broadway dismissed the brilliant High Fidelity, and then we proved how awesome it is! Maybe Cry-Baby is actually really good!

So I tracked down one of the writers, David Javerbaum, told him we were interested, and asked to see the script and score. I loved both. Soon after, I found myself sitting in a restaurant in New York, having Sunday brunch with the show's four writers, Javerbaum, Adam Schlessinger (of Fountains of Wayne), Mark O'Donnell, and the legendary bookwriter Tom Meehan! I never had a more entertaining meal in my life.

And not only did they agree to let us do the show, they decided they'd pay for new orchestrations for a six-piece rock band, which is what they had wanted from the beginning. And they gave me a free hand in "shrinking" the show down to a cast of 16. Ultimately, we really didn't change that much.

And so in 2012, we produced Cry-Baby to rave reviews and full houses -- it's still one of our top ten selling shows of all time. And Adm Schlessinger came to see us and was really pleased at how well it worked in a smaller house in a smaller production. We knew it would work -- we had done the exact same thing with High Fidelity in 2008, with exactly the same result.

Every time we do a show, one (or more) of our patrons asks me if we'll bring Cry-Baby back. So now we will. Cry-Baby is a prime example of the neo rock musical, but apparently, nobody on Broadway understood that's what it is. They also didn't understand that in the John Waters universe, the "bad kids" are the good guys, and the "good kids" are the bad guys!

(One cool side note about Cry-Baby...  After we produced it, other companies wanted to produce it as well, and for quite a while, we were the only contact that people could find, so New Line was a sort of unofficial broker for Cry-Baby rights. The same thing happened with High Fidelity and The Nervous Set. Hey, anything for a great musical! And now, Music Theatre International has picked up Cry-Baby, and now anybody can license the show. Which makes me very, very happy.)

I had heard a few good things about Head Over Heels, but it closed in New York after about five months. And I confess, once again, to assuming it wasn't a good show. You'd think I would've learned by now. I found out rights for HOH were being released, and decided I better take a look at it. I read about the show, and I found a bootleg video (shhhhh!), so I could actually see the Broadway production.

And to my great shock -- it's incredible!

Really smart, really insightful, really sexy, really funny, really surprising, and insanely high energy -- almost every song is a dance number! The biggest surprise to me was the show's sly mix of subtle-raunchy (if I may coin a hybrid) and genuine innocence. And on top of the astonishing trick of telling this wacky, upside-down story really clearly, I almost couldn't believe how perfectly the songs of the Go-Go's fit these characters and their story, set in 1580!

BTW, not just set in 1580, but based on a novel written in 1580!

The creators of this show made a world where all of these different elements feel exactly right, where the story and the period and the humor and the music all come from the same place. That will be our great challenge, but it's laid out so beautifully for us, all we have to do is follow the material. We've already scheduled twice the usual number of choreography rehearsals for this show.

I can't wait to share it with you!

Our third show of the season is one of the early masterpieces of this new Golden Age of Musical Theatre that we're lucky enough to be living in right now! This is no wacky parody. This isn't a show that can bear mugging to the audience or cheap schtick. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about meta-musicals and self-reference, and I wrote this about Urinetown:
I love Urinetown and I like very much The Producers, but those shows were both far more than just self-reference. Urinetown satirizes the simplistic, Rodgers-and-Hammerstein, black-and-white morality of old-fashioned musicals to demonstrate how inadequate it is in a complex real world. It mocks the way too many old-fashioned musicals ignore the complexities of the real world (because it's a lot easier to write that way), and it also mocks political theatre like The Threepenny Opera, with a strong political point of view that, in this case, gets totally subverted in the last few minutes of the show. The Producers is a story about subverting the creative process for selfish gains, and it's told by subverting the devices of the genre which is both the form and content of the story. Bialystock and Bloom violated the theatre and so did their story. In both cases, the self-reference grew out of the story rather than out of an inability to write good comedy.

I'll never forget seeing Urinetown for the first time on Broadway, and as soon as the opening number was over, I had this overwhelming feeling that someone had written a musical just for me! It was really cynical but really big-hearted. It was really dark but really hilarious. It struck me later that night that Urinetown was what Brecht would have created if he were still alive at the turn of this new century. And this tale of corrupt businessmen and corrupt politicians couldn't be more timely today. Again. Unfortunately. It's going to pack a powerful wallop.

One thing I remember very clearly though. People talk about what a crazy comedy Urinetown is, but it's not always funny. Parts of it are horrifying. Parts of it are disturbing. Just like Threepenny. I think that often, directors and actors don't let it be as ugly and fierce as it is, but that's exactly why it's so funny. It's an entirely ridiculous story (or is it?) populated by a bunch of ridiculous people frequently saying ridiculous things, and yet the storytelling style is so serious, so didactic, so self-important, so condescending.

And that's what's so funny. And the more seriously we take it, the higher we make the stakes, the funnier it all gets. It might sound counter-intuitive, but that's the nature of the beast, the neo musical comedy. I cannot wait to jump back into this brilliant madness!

It's a whole season of neo musical comedies, wacky, ridiculous, silly stories, about very important, front-page issues. Cry-Baby is full of big laughs, but at its core, it's about class and justice. Head Over Heels is incredibly silly on the surface, but underneath it's about gender and sexuality and orientation. Urinetown is utterly ridiculous in so many ways, but it also tells the truth about corruption, populism, and American politics.

And musical comedy.

We're very happy to report that the response to this coming season has been nothing short of stupendous. People are crazy excited! Last season, in only our second season of selling season tickets, we sold 100 subscriptions, which was great for a company our size, working in a small theatre. But already, just halfway through the summer, our season ticket sales this year are already up to 95 subscriptions! And 22 of them are new subscribers!

Thank you, St. Louis! If you haven't yet, you can order your season tickets here!

And I can't forget to mention the other really cool things going on this season -- our annual Trivia Night, hosted by Zombies of Penzance orchestrator John Gerdes, to raise money for New Line, on Sept. 13; and our annual New Line Holiday Dinner, on Dec. 4; and also a one-night-only, free, public reading of Gilbert & Sullivan's Bloody King Oedipus, their "long-lost" R-rated, horror-comedy, just recently "rediscovered" (you're welcome), on Monday night, Jan. 6.

If you thought The Zombies of Penzance was crazy, just wait...

PLUS, to my complete and total delight, this season we launch the New Line Theatre Film Series! During the runs of our mainstage shows, we'll take one night to show a companion film, related to the show that's running. We'll be showing John Waters' original film Cry-Baby during the run of the musical Cry-Baby, on Weds. Oct. 9; then Absolute Beginners during the run of Head Over Heels, on Weds. March 18; and finally Mack the Knife (an adaptation of Threepenny Opera), during the run of Urinetown, on Weds., June 17.

I think our film series is going to be really cool. We hope to do it every season from now on.

In fact, I'm so psyched about all of it, the shows, the films, the reading, the other events -- including the return of the New Line Cabaret Series at The Monocle! We've never had such an active season, but it's going to be a total blast. So much fun will be had.

In theatre, when a director asks an actor to face more toward the audience, especially when it's not a natural thing to do in the scene, theatre folk call that "cheating" or "cheating out." I don't. I call it "sharing." It's not just semantics. "Cheating" implies you're not doing it "right," or that you're duping the audience. "Sharing" implies you want the audience to come along on this ride.

For me, it's all about the audience coming along on these awesome rides with us. I find that I don't usually talk about being excited to "open a show" -- I usually talk about being excited to "share this show with our audience." It's a different mindset and it makes a difference in our work.

The great, unparalleld joy for me over the next year is I get to share a whole shitload of amazing stuff with you. All these things that make me so happy, I get to share. What's better than that?

Our 29th season and a whole new adventure starts soon. I hope you'll be coming along! Buy Your Season Tickets Now!

Long Live the Theatre!

The Loudest One is Ours

We close our St. Louis production of Be More Chill just as the Broadway production has posted its closing notice for a little over a month from now. It's another reminder, as if we needed one, that this miraculous thing we create, this piece of deeply felt art that we all pour ourselves into, exists only for a while and then it's gone.

I often hear people say that's why theatre is so special. Call me a cynic, but I look forward to the day when we have real-life holodecks and we can literally relive opening night of Company and Show Boat and Hamilton.

Over and over and over again.

Also, I'm going to keep watching bootlegs...

We are all so grateful to The Joes (Iconis and Tracz) for writing Be More Chill, to superstar producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper (the hardest working woman in show biz; did I mention she also writes book?), who shepherded the show along, to Charlie Rosen the show's incredible orchestrator; this incredible team who gave us the greatest gift possible, an exquisite, exciting, surprising piece of musical theatre heaven to work on and share with our audiences.

We will miss the universe of Be More Chill terribly, but it brings me great comfort to know that this beautiful, unusual, thrilling piece of theatre will have a long, healthy life in regional productions, in community theatre and school productions, and through its massive volume of fan art, fan covers, and fan forums (fora?). I can think of only a couple shows that have created that intensity of passion in their fans -- Rent and Hamilton.

A huge part of the fun for me during this process (as always) has been exploring, thinking about, and writing about this show, its structure and form, the show's textual themes, its many surprises and secrets, the opening number, and the relationship between the musical and its source novel. So much there to think about.

I also got to interview four members of the BMC team for my Stage Grok podcast -- composer-lyricist Joe Iconis (nicest guy ever), Jennifer Ashley Tepper (my theatre hero), orchestrator Charlie Rosen (a true genius), and actor Katlyn Carlson (super cool and super talented). I've never been able to get so many perspectives on a single show. It was really fun talking to all of them.

We knew the response to this show would be intense, but we had no idea what was coming... Only a few shows in our 28-year history have been met with enthusiasm like this -- honestly, maybe no other show of ours has reached quite this level...

The critics embraced us completely...
“Productions like this are exactly what contemporary theatre needs.”
– Tanya Seale, BroadwayWorld

“One of New Line’s best productions in recent history.”
– Kevin Brackett, ReviewSTL

“A startlingly fresh musical that avoids cliché to tell an exciting and at times very funny story about modern teenagers with a sci-fi twist.”
– Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times

“Teen angst has rarely been so entertainingly outrageous.”
– Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The powerful connection between actors and theatergoers is electric and palpable.”
– Lynn Venhaus, St. Louis Limelight

"This is a perfect New Line show, and how Scott Miller managed to present it so soon after its Broadway opening is a wonder."
– Judith Newmark, All the World’s a Stage

"the regional premiere run at New Line is truly special."
– Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

“A spectacular production. . . A total blast.”
– Tina Farmer, KDHX

We created a "Who's Your Squip?" wall in our lobby, much like they did in New York. The idea is to decide, if you had a squip, what person/character would the squip take on. At first, I chose Bob Fosse, but then I thought having him in my head all the time might be really oppressive, so I chose John Waters instead. I wasn't sure if people would participate, but our squip wall grew every night of the run. Here's a video documenting our great squip wall on closing night...

And the responses from our audiences on Facebook were overwhelming. Here's a few of them...
"Saw the production of Be More Chill last night. We knew all the songs ahead of time and were so excited to see it performed live. It was over our expectations! Amazing singers, actors, performances. Definitely worth visiting this theatre and group -- we’ve just learned about it and will be back. And for now? We get to spend the next week with all BMC songs stuck in our heads (no complaints)"

"Tonight's performance was fantastic. I taught high school for 31 years and I have a 21 year old son whose life revolves around music and performing -- and finding his way to know himself. Needless to say, I feel like the actors captured the angst/humor/passion/confusion of high school -- with a sci-fi twist. I loved every minute of the show. Kudos."

"After seeing this production at New Line the other week, I'm pretty sure I've listened to the original cast recording about a dozen times. I think I've changed my mind on what song I like best about four or five times. Too many good ones to choose from! Also, I'd love to hear a recording made from your cast, they did such a great job."

"New Line Theatre’s production of Be More Chill was so much fun tonight! We are truly so fortunate to have so much great art in this city."

"Can’t stress this enough. Be More Chill with New Line Theatre is tremendous! The voices. The actors. The music. The musicians. What an absolute joy of a show!"

"It was wonderful. Thank you for bringing it to St. Louis!"

"My son saw it twice! Great show."

I was very surprised that a dozen or more people talked to me during our run who had seen the show off or on Broadway, and preferred our production. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that our actors are literally a few feet from the front row, and our little blackbox theatre has only eight rows when we set it up this way. Just the fact of that intimacy makes any great show funnier, more intense, more powerful, more emotional, more honest.

I did see the off Broadway production, but have not seen it on Broadway. I know it's a terrific production with a really strong cast, but I think maybe this is a story that works better away from the pressures of the commercial theatre. I think the physical circumstances of our production lent us a little extra up-close magic.

It's really wonderful to find a great piece of theatre, put together a great production with a bunch of brilliant theatre artists, and then share it with audiences who fall in love with it. After all, despite all the cool things I found in the text and music, this really is just a story about surviving being Different.

And it's a thriller!

Everyone who helped create our production did extraordinary work -- our designers, tech staff, musicians, actors...  Musical theatre is the most collaborative of all art forms, and that's a big part of why I love it so much. (I'll never understand the companies who hire a computer instead of a band. Sorry, but that's not live musical theatre. The band is performing as much as the actors are!)

I am so grateful to all the New Liners who worked on Be More Chill, but I have to offer a few special thanks -- to Dowdy, who I trust more than anyone else I've ever worked with, and who directed this show with incredible creativity and artistry and confidence; to Jayde Mitchell (Jeremy) who worked his ass off, and who embraced every direction we gave him; and to Kevin Corpuz (Michael) and Grace Langford (Christine), two of our up-and-coming New Line stars, both of whom are wildly talented, super easy to work with, and extraordinary onstage.

Grace will be playing the female lead in both Cry-Baby and Head Over Heels next season, and Kevin will be Bobby Strong in Urinetown! Keep an eye on these two!

This whole cast rocked, the band (ably led by new New Liner Marc Vincent) rocked, and I really could not be prouder or happier. And New Line's bank account is reeeeally happy...

I love my job!

Long Live the Musical!

C-C-C-Come On, C-C-C-Come On, Go Go!

Be More Chill has one of those perfect, textbook opening numbers that accomplishes way more than you notice at first. Like Company, High Fidelity, Urinetown, Bat Boy, Next to Normal, Robber Bridegroom, Hands on a Hardbody, and so many other shows, Be More Chill's opening, "More Than Survive" is so much more than just a first song. It establishes style, tone, pacing, the show's central musical and textual themes, and all the major characters.

The show begins with a short musical prelude, some key-bending horror music, capped off with a short musical phrase that will later accompany the words, "Helps you to be cool, it helps you rule..." It's a musical foreshadowing of the show's central conflict -- except the phrase stops before the final note, and jumps into the first scene.

But that music is in our heads now...

The music turns to a four-note musical phrase that will return throughout the show. As I wrote in another post, this figure is almost familiar; it's almost Disney's Little Mermaid vamp, but it's been complicated by turning one note in the phrase dissonant, creating a tritone, a musical interval often associated with darkness, evil, even the Devil himself. The music is telling us that Jeremy's life is just a normal fucked up teenager's life, not right, not comfortable, not happy -- and that something really fucked-up is heading our way...

Just by changing that one note in the phrase, the music tells us subconsciously, even before we hear any words. that Jeremy's world is out of balance, and the action of this story will be about putting his world into balance.

And the first words of the show are the "C-C-C-Come on!" that will return throughout the show. Here, it's Jeremy impatience for porn to load on his computer. By the end of this opening number, that same chant will be the students impatience for the final bell to ring at the end of the school day. By the end of the show, that phrase will come to be the characters' invitation to the audience to follow Jeremy's example and find their own path.

Similarly, at the end of the school day, the chant will be finished off with a string of "Go, Go, Go, Go..." urging the clock's hands toward the bell. At the end of the show, the exact same chant will be telling the audience to now go out and put their own lives on the right path.

Only after this subliminal foundation has been set does the song gives us concrete info. Jeremy introduces himself and his problem (social failure) in the first verse, to music that will become Jeremy's "Dork Theme" (my label).

And then we segue into underscoring and the show's first bit of dialogue, which introduces Jeremy's father and the very odd relationship they share -- as well as his father's lack of pants. Here it's just a joke; we'll soon learn it's much more than that.

In the second verse, we find out that Jeremy is almost paralyzed by two things -- dread of continued social failure, and an inability to make decisions. We don't know this yet, but the Squip is going to solve both problems.

Now on the school bus, Jeremy lays out another repeating musical theme to this lyric:
I don't want to be a hero;
Just wanna stay in the line.
I'll never be a Rob De Niro;
For me, Joe Pesci ls fine.

He wants to be a nobody. Or at least, he doesn't aspire to anything more. Also, songwriter Joe Iconis is telling us that pop culture references are part of the fabric of this story. The section ends with:
I don't want to be special, no, no...
I just want to survive.

And that's his problem. He doesn't expect or even hope that his life will get any better. He's stagnating, not growing.

The opening continues into some more underscoring and dialogue, and we meet most of the other characters and we see an illustration of Jeremy's shitty social status. The underscoring is the main theme from "Smartphone Hour" -- it's a kind of "Gossip Theme," but we don't know that yet... And the dialogue also sets up the sexually charged social world at this school.

We return to the opening's main melody and Jeremy tells us his only real goal here is to "remain unseen." So much is set up in this opening that will soon change.

And then we meet Christine and the romantic "Christine Theme." But then Christine speaks and Jeremy falls apart and he goes back to his "Dork Theme." He tells himself:
Accept that you're on of those guys
Who'll stay a virgin till he dies.

Yikes! (There are a lot of references to death and suicide in this show!) Finally we meet Michael and the music changes drastically. Jeremy's music has been a kind of driving, relentless pop-rock, but when Michael arrives, the music swings for the first time. Michael is listening to Bob Marley, so the music slips into a Jamaican reggae groove to mirror the music we don't actually hear in his headphones.

This very short musical section tells us a lot. It tells us the Michael doesn't share the same "music" (literally and metaphorically) as all the other kids. He has his own music, his own voice, because he already knows what Michael must learn -- to follow his own path. As soon as Jeremy speaks again, the music turns back to that regular beat and the dissonance of the beginning of the number.

Jeremy and Michael share some dialogue and we get some information about their relationship. We learn more about Jeremy's feelings and the romantic "Christine Theme" returns, this time with all the students singing along -- in Jeremy's head. This moment tells us that in this story, the other characters will sometimes play voices in Jeremy's head. That's important for us to know.

The music stops for just a second, just long enough for Rich to humiliate Jeremy in front of everybody else. And Jeremy returns to his "Dork Theme." He sings:
I'm never gonna be the cool guy;
I'm more the one who's left out.
Of all the characters at school, I
Am not the one who the story's about...

That last line is fascinating because it tells us so much about Jeremy -- he can't imagine being the Hero, being the Protagonist. But to the audience, it's a funny meta-moment since we already know we're here to see a story in which Jeremy is the protagonist.

The last section of this opening number turns to driving rock eighth notes, as Jeremy pleads with the universe to help him "more than survive." Maybe he's not content with his life after all. Maybe he does aspire to something more. And as the rest of the cast joins in, maybe we get the hint that all of them, even the Cool Kids that Jeremy envies, all really feel the same way underneath.

In one of my favorite asides in the show, Jeremy sings:
If this was an apocalypse,
I would not need any tips
On how to stay alive.
But since the zombie army's yet to descend,
And the period is going to end,
I'm just trying my best
To pass the test
And survive.

In other words, Jeremy can handle himself against zombies in a video game, just not against humans in the real world. All he wants is to "pass the test" of social acceptance. Weirdly, his skills in the video game universe will essentially help him Save the World at the end of the show. Also, he doesn't know if yet, but he doesn't have to "pass the test" -- because measuring up to other people's measure is the Great Mistake that Jeremy makes. He only has to measure up to his own measure, to be a happy and complete person.

The "C-C-C-Come on!" theme returns, as a structural bookend to the number (and eventually, the show as a whole!), and it invokes that feeling of impatience that fuels our teenage years; and despite Jeremy's protestations, we see that Everybody's Wants the Same Thing.

By the time his opening number is over, we know quite a bit about Jeremy and his major relationships -- with his father, with Michael, with Christine, and with the brutal high school social scene. We've also heard all the important musical themes that will be used throughout the score, we've gotten a taste of the the pop culture references that will permeate the story, and the wry, irreverent humor that is the language of this world.

If the audience doesn't already know the story, they think at this point that this is a romantic musical comedy, that ultimately Jeremy will find himself through the love of the Right Girl. But that's not where we're headed, or to be more accurate, that's not how we're headed. Jeremy has to go on a painful (literally and metaphorically) Hero's Journey -- by himself. It's self-knowledge that Jeremy lacks and must find -- by himself.

Soon after Michael arrives to Save the World at the end (oops! spoiler alert!), Jeremy comes to the self-awareness he lacks in the opening. And significantly, the finale ends the same way the opening ends. In the opening, all they want is the end of the school day; in the finale, they're urging all of us to learn what they've learned -- we each have our own path, and we each have to find that path on our own.

The opening ends with a driving chant, "Go, go, go, go..." The Act II finale ends instead with one "Go" on a big, choral chord that rises and grows, and while there is dissonance within the chord, it grows into a final, perfect, major chord, no dissonance, no complication.

Jeremy's okay. He's grown up, or at least taken his first steps in that direction. He has learned to focus on others instead of himself. He's learned about sacrifice. And he's learned the most important lesson of all:
And there are voices all around,
And you can never mute the sound.
They scream and shout;
I tune them out,
Then make up my own mind.
. . .
And there are voices in my head...
So many voices in my head...
And they can yell,
And hurt like hell,
But I know I'll be fine.
Might still have voices in my head…
There are voices in my head…
But of the voices in my head,
The loudest one is mine!

Those "voices" -- peer pressure, the culture, and other social forces, won't go away -- the trick is to make sure you own voice, your own path, is the one you follow. The final invocation of the "C-C-C-Come on, Go!" chant finishes the show, and it takes on powerful meaning.

We realize by the end that this chant has changed over the course of the show; it's "grown up" with Jeremy. It first accompanies Jeremy's impatience for computer porn, then the students' impatience for the end of the school day, then Jeremy's impatience with his nonexistent social confidence, then porn again, then at the end of Act I, it becomes the Squip's seduction, to which Jeremy succumbs.

But here at the end of the show, it's a demand, a command, the equivalent of the iconic "Just Do It."

The show, the characters, the actors are all imploring us to live our lives actively rather than passively, to let our own voices be the loudest ones. It's not all that different from "Let the Sun Shine In" at the end of Hair, begging the audience to bring light back into the darkness. In Hair, it's advocating for communal action; Be More Chill advocates for personal, largely inner action.

That's not a lesson for teenagers. It's a lesson for all of us. Which is why Be More Chill is so universally loved. When I talk to audience members after performances, so many of them talk about how "honest" and "real" the story and the characters feel to them -- despite the sci-fi elements.

We're all Jeremy, one way or another. We all have voices in our head that steer us wrong, that tell us we're not good enough. The Squip is a metaphor, and by the end, we all get it. Following someone else's path always leads to problems. We each have to find our own way, and to do that, our own voice must be the loudest. Christine acknowledges at the end that what the Squip offers is very seductive, but it's not a real life.

We close the show next weekend, and we will all miss it terribly. But it will stay with us, not just the joy and the amazing response from audiences and the press, but also the deeply honest, thoughtful, subtle story, that has something to teach us all.

Long Live the Musical!

It's Just So Universal

I finally started reading the Be More Chill novel, and I LOVE IT.

Though lots of small things are different from the musical, all the big arcs are pretty much the same -- although the ending is totally different (by necessity). It's been fun spending even more time with Jeremy, Michael, and the gang. Plus the novel is full of "Bonus Features"...

For instance, I was reading the novel and got to a reprint of a Yahoo News item that Jeremy sees online about the Squip... What?

Let's pause here for a second...

Sometimes reading the source novel is incredibly helpful; sometimes it's not. When New Line produced Sondheim's Passion in 1996 (am I really that old?), I watched the source movie, Passione d'amore (The Passion of Love), which is really wonderful and really fucked up. Sondheim and Lapine had stuck pretty close to the movie, so it was interesting to see but didn't tell me much new. Then I read the autobiographical (!) source novel by Iginio Tarchetti. It's a wild, incredibly entertaining, often disturbing ride, but it was a blast to read. Plus, I found virtually nothing that was at odds with the musical, and so much that enhanced and added to the information the musical gave us. It really helped us in concrete ways.

Reading Ragtime was like that as well.

Then again... I read the Sweet Smell of Success novella while we worked on that show, and while it's an amazing book, it's really only a jumping off place for the show. Lots of things are different, and most notably, the novella's plot starts near the end of the musical's first act. So reading the book was fun, and a little helpful with time and place, atmosphere, tone, etc., but I had to understand that the show was a different animal. That was also true of reading The Once and Future King while working on Camelot. In the novel, Lance is ugly, after all...

Weirdly, the book Pal Joey is actually backstory for the musical Pal Joey. And the musical Man of La Mancha explores only a few small sections from the sprawling novel Don Quixote (one of my favorites!), much like South Pacific does.

The Be More Chill novel falls on both sides of this question (not a surprise for this show), which is why I waited to read it till after we opened. I do feel like I'm getting to know these characters better, particularly Jeremy and Michael, but I also know that the story we're telling is the stage musical, not the novel.

Meanwhile, I'm also learning so much about BMC from audiences members and other fans. I happened upon a Be More Chill Wiki site, and there are lots of cool tidbits there...

Two things that really struck me...

First, the Squip says something repeatedly in the show that (as a non-gamer) baffled me: "Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, A." Finally someone explained it to me. Here's how the mildly addictive Be More Chill Wiki puts it:
For those who don't know, the Konami code is a cheat code or a command that has different effects depending on the game in question, most commonly used in Konami branded games and few Nintendo games. It was also called the "Contra Code" or the "99 lives code." The exact code is: Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A. Though the Squip's little code is: Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, A.

Okay, mind blown.

Also, I found this: "Joe Tracz claims that it is unknown if the Squip's motives were to take over the world, but the Squip does wish for everyone in the world to own a Squip (Tracz compares this to how Apple wants everybody to have their products)." Again, that's interesting...

Here's the big mind-blower so far. I'm reading the novel and I get to a Yahoo News item that Jeremy reads online:
Sony Hints at Next Generation of Wearable Computers

Just as the Segway Human Transport system was introduced to the world as clandestine, heavily-funded “IT” technology, digital designers and futurists are now buzzing about “SQUIP” as the next great leap forward in human lifestyle enhancement. SQUIP is being developed by Sony (SNE).

“It’s a simple device that will redefine how computers operate within our society,” says Harvey Dinglesnort about SQUIP, which Sony refuses to comment on directly. Mr. Dinglesnort reviews high-end devices for a variety of publications including The Sharper Image(SHRP). “They’re keeping close tabs on it because it really will be a sensation when it is released.”

What is known about SQUIP is that it involves microcomputers that can be implanted—or ingested—into the human body. Devices like the VeriChip, fromApplied Digital Systems (ADSXE), already provide this functionality, but VeriChip implantation is a surgical procedure (albeit an outpatient one) involving a needle large enough to dose an elephant. SQUIP is said to be much smaller and easier to “install” due to the fact that it does not employ conventional microchip structure.

“Sony is going consumer with quantum computing,” Mr. Dinglesnort explains. “Scientists have been researching for years the prospect of building a computer based not on the binary system, where a piece of information is either a one or a zero, but on a ‘qubit’ system, where a piece of information can be a one, a zero, or a sort of in-between state that collapses into a one or zero when it is observed closely.”

The quantum computer is of interest to researchers because of its staggering data-processing capabilities, exponentially surpassing those of current CPUs. It has been discussed for projects ranging from large-scale materials fabrication to time travel. But Sony seems to have simpler plans.

“What they have said is, ‘Let’s not worry about all the great things quantum computers can do. Let’s just make a simple one and take advantage of the fact that it can be tiny, and try to manufacture a sort of ingestible Palm Pilot,’” Mr. Dinglesnort says. Consumer models are a long way off. But the prospect of SQUIP has futurists drooling and investors lining up…

Yikes. We know this isn't exactly the Squip's backstory onstage, because in the musical Michael searches the internet but can't find anything at all about the Squip -- which makes him suspicious. (Also in the novel, Michael's is a serious horndog with a thing for Asian women, and his brother actually took a Squip!)

I said we know that this isn't the Squip's backstory in the musical, but we don't know that. The only thing we know is different is that, in the musical, there's nothing about it on the internet; but it is from Japan, it's incredibly high-tech (nobody made this in their garage), and there are a lot of them.

This backstory does make sense in the context of the musical...

How does that help us? It's just another piece of "reality" that helps this fictional world feel real and complete to the actors, which makes it feel real and complete to the audience. After all, acting is really just about acting naturally, logically, in fictional circumstances. So the more the actor knows about the world she's inhabiting, the more convincingly she'll do that.

One thing that really struck me as I read the novel is how much had to get left out -- and yet it really doesn't feel like the musical is missing much at all. The Joes (Mssrs. Iconis and Tracz) did a masterful job of combining multiple similar incidents into one, combining similar characters into composites, etc.

People talk about how much gets left out by necessity when a 300-page novel is adapted into a 90-minute film, but the transformation is even more extreme when a novel is transformed into a stage musical. The script of a musical is -- by necessity -- the most compact kind of storytelling, and therefore, the most difficult. The book of a musical gets so little stage time, because singing takes much longer than talking. Music slows down time in a musical. Though not as grotesquely as a lot of opera does. What might take 30 seconds to say in dialogue may well take a minute and a half, or two minutes, or even more, to express in song.

Considering all that, it's genuinely astonishing to me that only small things are different between the novel and the musical, that the Joes told this story in all its fullness and complexity, despite the form's inherent restrictions and its limits on time and space. That's some damn fine writing.

And when big things are different in the story, it's so clearly a choice made to enhance the emotional content of the story; after all, musical theatre is one of the most emotional forms of storytelling, since it uses the abstract language of music, alongside the concrete language of words.

For instance, in the novel, Jeremy has somewhat emotionally absent, shitty parents. In the musical, Jeremy's mother has left and his father is trapped in his deep grief. That's a much more intense set of circumstances, which needs the emotional intensity of music to tell its story. When people ask me, I always tell them that the thing that makes a great story into a great musical is the intensity of emotion; musical theatre's great super power is its ability to portray deep, complicated, and intense emotion far better than spoken words alone ever could.

The Joes (Iconis and Tracz) took an inherently emotional story, and with only minor adjustments, turned it into an incredibly emotional story, with very high emotional stakes. That's what great musical theatre does.

One other thing I've learned as we worked on and now run Be More Chill -- people's reactions to it are almost never rational; they're way more emotional (and so, dare I say it, irrational) than I expected. Though almost all our reviews were pretty much raves, some of them made a point of dismissing the material.

I don't know how to break it to them, but we can't make a great show out of not-great material. It doesn't work that way.

Several of the reviewers talked about how the characters were all stereotypes, but then went on to explain in detail how they aren't stereotypes; and likewise, these same people declared our story derivative and predictable, and then they go on to talk about all the unexpected twists and turns the story takes. My favorite review quote along those lines was, "There are definitely relatable aspects, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before, and better."

Really? Because I'm trying to think of another musical about young people that appears to be a romantic musical comedy at first, but soon morphs into a dark sci-fi thriller, that deals with peer pressure, bullying, teen depression, suicide, the over-medication of kids, absent parents. Actually I'm trying to think of another musical that applies the Faust legend to kids. (No, not Little Shop, since Audrey and Seymour are at least ten years older than these kids, despite the usual miscasting, and they exist in a completely different time, place, and storytelling style.)

Also, part of the genius of Be More Chill, and the reason that literally millions -- let me repeat that, MILLIONS -- of people connect to this show so powerfully, is that the characters at first seem to be stock character types, but every one of them proves to be much more complicated than that -- exactly as it is in real life. Early in the show, when BMOC Jake talks to Christine about how her play affected him, the show blows up the jock stereotype...
JAKE: Hey. You were in that play last year.
CHRISTINE: You mean Romeo & Juliet?
JAKE: Yeah. you were that girl who died!
CHRISTINE: You mean Juliet?
JAKE: Yeah! That was depressing.
CHRISTINE: Thanks ...
JAKE: But. .. you were good. I'm Jake.
CHRISTINE: I...know.
JAKE: Cool... Can l say something stupid? When 1 saw you die in the play last year. .. That was like the saddest I'd felt in a long time. It was like everything in my life, all the pressure I feel to be the best, at everything, all the time ... Suddenly felt so small. And then, when you got up at the end for your victory dance ...
CHRISTINE: Bow, it's called a bow.
JAKE: Right! I remember thinking, "l 'm glad that girl's not dead ... before I ever got the chance to know her." Stupid, right?
CHRISTINE: That's ... not stupid at all.

This is one of my favorite moments in the show, because the stereotypical jock is revealed to be a real person, with real emotions he doesn't fully understand, and the audience realizes they can't assume anything about any of these people. This jock has just discovered the magic of theatre and he is fully embracing it. Maybe high school and college kids recognize this basic truth even more readily because they're in the midst of living through all that...

But then again, aren't we all...?

Every show we produce teaches me a lot -- about the show, about humans, about life, about storytelling, but this show is also teaching me about preconceptions. When I ask people after the show why they think the show is having such massive success, both adults and kids tell me pretty much the same thing -- it's because the show is fiercely, deeply honest and authentic. This is not a silly story about silly emotions; this is not a story of stereotypes and cliches; no, this is a story about the incredible complexity of human relationships, and the social context that we all create that can lift up or beat down anybody, popular or not, smart or not, loved or not.

And almost everybody I ask, from current high school kids to seniors, says this story mirrors their own high school experience in a thousand ways, some obvious, some very subtle. The word lots of people use about the show is "honest." I couldn't agree more. You never hear Iconis and Tracz in this dialogue or these lyrics; you hear the authentic voices of high school kids.

I went through all those emotions in high school (forty years ago!), and today's high school kids are telling me they're going through all these exact same emotions today, which leads me to believe not a lot has changed when it comes to the way people treat people. Myself, I had an awesome time in high school, but I know many (most?) people are still carrying various traumas from high school around with them. And that baggage will color how they experience this story.

Yes, there are other musicals about teens -- great musicals, some of them -- but there's nothing else like Be More Chill. And if you think there is, you're not paying attention. I agree with RFT reviewer Paul Friswold, who wrote:
New Line's Be More Chill is a startlingly fresh musical that avoids cliche to tell an exciting and at times very funny story about modern teenagers with a sci-fi twist. . .

As good as Joe Iconis' songs are (and the New Line band, led by Marc Vincent, plays them very well indeed), Joe Tracz' book is equally compelling. An off-hand factoid about stagnating human evolution dovetails quite tidily with the Squip's motivations for disseminating more of itself through the school. This is the real menace of life lived by remote control, and everything in Be More Chill hinges on someone "just saying no" to technology-laced drugs. For all its charms and honesty about the bad decision-making of high schoolers, Be More Chill's gripping conclusion proves that not everyone takes the easy way out. It takes only one brave teen armed with a fondness for retro '90s culture to stop the madness. Uncoolness never looked so good.

I agree -- startlingly fresh. The funniest part of this is though several reviewers thought there was nothing new here, no one even mentioned Faust. They (incorrectly) think Be More Chill isn't that different from Heathers or Mean Girls, but apparently they don't recognize the story's actual source.

BroadwayWorld reviewer Tanya Seale called our show, "one of the coolest, freshest comedic musicals in years. . . It features modern-day teen characters who speak modern-day lingo, who dress in modern-day fashion, and who cleverly and intriguingly use modern-day technology onstage." I'll leave you with the end of Tanya's review...
I can't even begin to convey just how refreshing it was to see an audience respond so enthusiastically to musical theatre. It was almost as if the teenagers in the house were calling out, "Thank you! You see us!" Productions like this are exactly what contemporary theatre needs to cultivate new audiences and Be More Chill certainly delivers on that tall order.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

My Heart Is Like Wow!

The more we get to live inside this Be More Chill score, the more we discover its hidden gems.

Por ejemplo...

The vamp that opens the first number reappears throughout the score. It's a four-note figure and it's brilliant. At first when I heard it, it sounded slightly familiar. After a while I realized why.

It's almost the same vamp as in the Little Mermaid song "Part of Your World." Disney's vamp is Bb - C - D - F. It outlines a Bb major chord, plus it adds the second degree of the scale for a little color. However, the vamp in Be More Chill is Bb - C - E - F. The only difference is that the third note, on the third degree of the scale, is changed -- to the tritone!

The tritone is the fourth degree of the scale, but raised a half step. It's often known as diabolus in musica (the Devil in Music), and it's often used to make music to feel "wrong" or "dangerous," for one reason or another. In fact, the tritone is all over the score for West Side Story. Here, in Be More Chill, Iconis has taken a common, pretty, "happy" vamp, and he has changed it, complicated it, just enough to make it sound somehow "wrong." Because Jeremy's world is "wrong," out of balance.

The score is full of this kind of subtle musical storytelling.

When Christine sings her joyful, wildly enthusiastic paean to the magic of theatre, her music frequently goes "out of time," because her enthusiasm can't be contained by the regular meter. It's a subtle, but impactful musical device.

The song starts out in "normal" 4/4, but as Christine repeatedly gets swept away, she constantly seems to get ahead or behind the beat, she drops beats in her hilariously adorable mania, falling into odd meters like 7/8 and 6/4. But at some point, she always catches herself and returns home to 4/4, as she returns to the safety of her theatre. It's a neat, almost subliminal trick that most people in the audience won't consciously notice, but they will sense that it's odd, that it's somehow out of control...

But what's transcendent about this quirky, jumpy, character piece, is that beneath the crazy mental leaps, the oddball language, and the obvious ADD, Christine also gets at something she can't quite define, but theatre people know what it is -- it's the sacred. The theatre is a scared place, where we reenact rituals to try to understand ourselves and the world around us. The vast majority of human communication is in the form of storytelling (think about it!), and the most potent form of storytelling is LIVE storytelling, and the most emotional form of storytelling is musical. Christine couldn't put all of her feelings into words,  but she understands this in her bones.

She sings:
And no matter how hard I try.
It's impossible to narrow down the many reasons why
I love play rehearsal;
I happiness cry
Whenever it starts...
. . .
Back to play rehearsal,
My brain is like bzzzz,
My heart is like wow!
Because we're here at play rehearsal,
And it's starting,
We're starting,
It's starting

I have this theory that a lot of theatre people "feel too much." They experience emotions more extremely, more intensely than most people, and theatre is a way to express all that big emotion. Christine proves my theory:
I am passionate a lot,
And I have mad gigantic feelings,
Rad and frantic feelings,
About most everything,
Like gun control, like spring;
Like if I'm living up to all I'm meant to be...
I also have a touch of ADD…

There's so much more going on in this song than it first appears. That's really good writing.

Christine's Act II song, "A Guy That I'd Kinda Be Into" is another playful, bouncy number, this time a kind of mambo that's marked "Giddy but Steady." I love Iconis' markings.

Of all the characters in the show, Jeremy sings in the most conventional, most mainstream pop music language, while the other characters often don't. But Iconis still delivers some treats, like in "The Squip Song," when Jeremy sings about tripping, he drops two beats and creates a hiccup in the music. It's subtle, but it's cool.

In that same song, when Rich finally describes and explains the Squip, almost that entire section is one repeated note, becoming almost mechanical, inhuman. Then Rich repeats the section, but up an octave in a rock tenor, while backup vocals sing a ragged, (again) almost mechanical counter-melody.

The coolest moment in that song is the music that accompanies the lyric, "Helps you to be cool, it helps you rule!" I dare you find the key in that phrase! By taking it out of conventional harmony for a moment, Iconis gives the phrase an other-worldly, unsettling feeling. The music itself is telling us there is something very wrong here...

By the time we get to the end of "The Squip Song," we've lost control of key and meter (3/4, 4/4, 5/8), and it sounds like what I can only describe as Horror Rock. By the time we get to the end, this story no longer feels like a romantic comedy. Something else is going on here...

I notice in the score that Michael always has the most "fun" music, because he's the only character in the show (okay, maybe Michael and Christine) who aren't fucked up. Michael is a happy guy, content with life as it is. We first meet him, listening to, and then singing in the style of, Bob Marley. Later, in "Two-Player Game," Michael gets a very cool groove in the "Guys like us" section. The music is telling us that Michael is relatively well-adjusted and happy. For now.

But maybe the most fun part of "Two-Player Game" is the freakishly authentic, video-game-inspired music, lovingly and deliciously orchestrated by Charlie Rosen (leader of The 8-Bit Big Band, BTW). We don't know it yet, but this song tells us how the story ends.

Michael's Act II showstopper, "Michael in the Bathroom" is one of those songs that we hear too many times, and we stop hearing the lyrics. Listen to these lyrics. They're subtle, honest, and beautifully crafted. And Iconis does a beautiful thing with this music -- it's still got a touch of the bouncy, happy music Michael sang in Act I, but here it's slower, not bouncy anymore, not happy. And the chorus of the song almost discards the beat, with just long chords under the vocal line, slowly picking the beat up again. Michael hasn't lost his beat -- his life force -- entirely, but it's not what it once was...

And the bridge of "Michael in the Bathroom" is not far from a musical nervous breakdown. Then, as Michael begins the final chorus, he can't even say the words, "Michael in the Bathroom" -- the band takes the line for him, and then he joins back in again. It's such an emotional moment, for this guy whose earlier songs were so joyous, and it's the way Iconis uses music that delivers that.

The show's title song is under-girded by aggressive, driving 16th notes -- the score is marked "Surf Rock." Later, in the song, when the Squip is playing Cyrano for Jeremy, the music turns to tango (marked "The Squip Tango"), underlining the absurd phoniness of the moment. And then, when  Brooke invites him with "Do You Wanna Ride?" the music changes to a seductive blues. And again, at the end of this song, we slide in and out of the key. Something's still wrong here... and so much shit is going on!

The last scene of the show is almost entirely underscored, working in a few short reprises along the way. This is the climax of this thriller, and the music does so much of the heavy lifting, telling us so much about these kids and their emotions, in ways that they can't articulate themselves -- and also creating suspense in the same way horror movie scores do.

There's much more going on in this terrific score, but this is a pretty good sampling. Joe Iconis is not just a songwriter; he's a dramatist. All the best theatre songwriters are. It's what makes shows worth working on and what makes them so powerful for audiences.

People connect to this show in a profound way. I can't wait to see how our audiences react to everything. Some things about our show are like the New York production, and some things are fairly different. We'll see what the hardcore fans think...

We open next week, and the actors are finding such wonderful, surprising, honest moments. It's a real treat to watch them work.

If you haven't gotten your tickets yet, do it now! This is already the second biggest presale in New Line's history, and we expect every performance will sell out.


Long Live the Musical!


There Are Voices All Around

So why does the Squip choose Jeremy?

We don't realize this right away, but it doesn't take long before we figure out Jeremy didn't really make any of these choices; he's been manipulated by the Squip the whole time -- even before he takes it!

But what is it about Jeremy that makes him such a prime target? Well, we have to remember that Rich gets Squipped first, but clearly, Rich doesn't serve the Squip's agenda as well as Jeremy does. But why not Michael? Or Christine? Or the popular kids?

Well, Christine loves life. She's the least effective target. The Squip requires discontent to work its dark magic. And though Michael is an Other, an outsider, just like Jeremy, Michael actively engages Life, while Jeremy lets Life happen to him. And the rich kids all have strong personalities, much harder to shape.

Jeremy is passive. Jeremy is weak. In the script's character list, it calls him "awkward high school junior." Nice. Jeremy's life is kind of awful -- or at least, it sure feels that way.

What kind of person do you have to be, to be the target of such dark seduction? You have to believe that nothing else works, that there is no other hope, no other escape. You have to be close to Rock Bottom. In the first verse of the first song in the show, Jeremy tells us:
If I'm not feeling weird or super strange,
My life would be in utter disarray,
'Cause freaking out is my okay.

Being not okay is his normal. Later in the song:
Now, should I take a bus or walk instead?
I feel my stomach filling up with dread.
When I get nervous my whole face goes red.
Dude, weigh the options calmly and be still.
A junior on the bus is killer weak,
But if I walk when I arrive I'm gonna straight up reek;
And my boxers will be bunchy and my pits will leak;
Ugh, God, I wish I had the skill
To just be fine and cool and chill.

He's not joking. Jeremy's life really sucks. In direct opposition to 99& of musical comedy heroes, he sings:
I don't wanna be special, no, no;
I just wanna survive.

That's a pretty modest ask. But again, what kind of person thinks like this? Part of the appeal of this show is that everybody feels that way at some point, right? But Jeremy has most of us beat -- his mother has abandoned him, and his father is so lost in his grief, he won't get dressed. This isn't a musical comedy. This isn't a story about a great kid who just wishes he could fit in. This is a serious story about serious emotions that sometimes lead to serious tragedies.

If Jeremy shot up the school, everybody would be convinced they had seen the signs.

I've been thinking about this, as all the pieces of our show come together. What is most important that we communicate to the audience?

One of the things I discovered about Pippin when I directed it, is that Pippin has to be a jerk, a real selfish jackass, to begin with, or else his journey and his final Enlightenment don't mean anything. Fosse was correct in believing that "Corner of the Sky" is some self-indulgent bullshit from a shallow college graduate who thinks he knows more than he knows. Maybe Stephen Schwartz didn't intend the song to be that, but it works brilliantly that way. If Pippin is a spoiled (royal!) brat at the beginning of our story, he really is transformed by the end -- he has grown up.

He's gone on a Hero Myth journey.

In Be More Chill, Jeremy is also on his own Hero Myth journey, but his story is a Faustian one. He has traded his soul (almost literally) for social success, and it's so parallel to Seymour Krelborn, Joe Boyd, and, well, Faust...

At the beginning of the story, Jeremy is so lost, so confused, so sad. At the end of the story, he understands so much he didn't understand before. In very real ways, he is an adult at the end of the story. He understands responsibility, community, sacrifice, commitment, so much. There is a beautifully crafted arc for him across the story, and the real success of the script is that we see that transformation, and the key moments along the road.

A new Golden Age of musical theatre began in the mid-1990s, and part of that was the blossoming of the neo musical comedy -- shows that use the devices and conventions of musical comedy, but for darker, more complex, more political, more self-aware, more ironic purposes. Little Shop of Horrors was the really the first of these, but we didn't see the form really blossom till Bat Boy and Urinetown in the late 1990s. Now these shows are everywhere -- The Prom, Something Rotten, Head Over Heels, Cry-Baby, Lysistrata Jones, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Yeast Nation, Jerry Springer the Opera, Bukowsical, Reefer Madness, Passing Strange, and of course Assassins.

(I lean toward calling Merrily We Roll Along a neo musical comedy, but there's so little comic and so much depressing there...)

This Golden Age also birthed the neo rock musical, musicals that essentially adopt the rules and structure of the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows but using a rock/pop musical vocabulary. The original rock musicals in the last part of the 20th century, were about rock. Using rock music was the point for JC Superstar, Evita, and other shows. But the neo rock musical uses rock music because that's the common language between the writers and audiences. That's our musical default now.

How does all this apply to Be More Chill?

Last night I was watching a documentary called Take Your Pills, about over-prescribing medications for kids. And the way these kids described being on Adderall sounded spookily like how the Squip is described...

As high-energy and crazy as our show is, the story of Be More Chill is not a funny one. Think about it -- a troubled teenager whose mother has left him and whose father is falling apart, turns to black market pharmaceuticals to treat his problems, losing his best friend and the girl he loves in the process. Total downer! And yet this story is told using the storytelling language and pacing of a musical comedy.


Just as the show fools us into thinking it's a love story, before it reveals its true nature; so too, it starts out feeling like a neo musical comedy, but becomes a neo rock musical by the Act II finale. "I Love Play Rehearsal" is a musical comedy charm song. "Michael in the Bathroom" is a musical drama character study. Both are excellent explorations of the feelings of these important secondary characters. But while "Play Rehearsal" makes us adore Christine, "Bathroom" takes us inside Michael's emotions. Christine felt this way before she met Jeremy, but Michael feels this way because of Jeremy. Christine's song moves their relationship forward, but Michael's song reveals the central tragedy of Jeremy's actions. Those are much higher stakes.

Not only has Jeremy been abandoned by his mother -- and sort of by this father -- but now Jeremy abandons Michael. Humans are such emotional wrecking machines.

This show completely morphs over the course of the evening. But that's not a bug; it's a feature. Big Picture, this story is a thriller at its core, and one of the ways it keeps us off balance and builds suspense, is by setting up and then disrupting our expectations over and over again -- by tricking us, just as the Squip tricks Jeremy.

Jeremy makes two gigantic mistakes at the beginning. He looks for an easy way to solve a really complicated problem, and he believes he can find his path by listening to someone else. What Jeremy learns at the end (a lesson we also learn in Passing Strange), is that he has to follow his own path, not the paths of others. No one else can steer him toward his own path; he has to find it himself.

And as the show ends, it looks like there's a good chance he will. He sings:
And there are voices all around,
And you can never mute the sound.
They scream and shout;
I tune them out,
Then make up my own mind.

He's taken his Hero's Journey and he's learned one of the most important lessons of Life -- Know Thyself. And in those last few moments, you'd be forgiven for thinking maybe this is a (neo) musical comedy after all, complete with happy ending. Because no matter how much we humans fuck up, most of the time, we eventually find our messy way. Though we sure leave a lot of carnage in our wake. The point of telling stories like this is to reassure ourselves and each other that we all fuck up and we all get on the wrong road sometimes. The trick isn't to never fuck up -- it's just to find your way back again when you do.

We open in a week and a half! Our pre-sale is now officially the second biggest in New Line history! Get your tix now!

Long Live the Musical!


It's a Two-Player Game

Up until 2016, I directed every show New Line produced. Sometimes it was with a co-director like Alison Helmer, who directed a handful of shows with me over the years. And sometimes I had a really smart directing intern who contributed a lot. But solo or with a co-pilot, I directed every show.

That was partly because New Line was born in 1991, right at the time that the earliest murmurings of this new Golden Age of Musical Theatre were being heard, and New Line has always done musicals that did not operate according to traditional rules (Assassins, Floyd Collins, Songs for a New World, March of the Falsettos, Jacques Brel, etc.), shows which most directors weren't equipped to direct.

The other reason was that New Line quickly developed its own style, and I'm really good at that style -- very aggressive, very intimate, outrageous but serious-minded, and anchored by a phrase coined by the Actor’s Gang, “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity.” The canvas is bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle.

Still, I prefer directing with somebody.

Actor Mike Dowdy-Windsor came to work with us in 2009, and it wasn't long before I asked him to direct with me, and then we made him New Line's Associate Artistic Director. He's really smart, and he's a genius at solving problems on stage.

In 2016, for the first time in New Line's history, Dowdy directed a show, Tell Me on a Sunday. I was at all the rehearsals, but I contributed very little to the direction of the show. It was Dowdy's baby, and it turned out really well. So then Dowdy solo-directed Lizzie, again to rave reviews and thrilled audiences.

So when Be More Chill came up, Dowdy really wanted to direct it, but I love this show and didn't really wanted to stand back artistically. So Dowdy and I agreed to reverse our usual relationship -- we're both directing the show, but Dowdy is doing the initial blocking and he will be the final word on all artistic decisions.

Though I am a recovering control freak, I am amazingly comfortable with this arrangement. I find myself choosing to stay home and get New Line office work done, rather than go to blocking rehearsals. I could have never done that ten years ago...

I have never felt this comfortable with someone else directing. And it's because we directed together for several years first, and we have an almost identical aesthetic sense, and almost identical opinions about making theatre.

Dowdy's been calling me a lot, for months now, talking through ideas, concepts, etc. for the show, and honest to god, every single thing he said to me about Be More Chill sounded really right, from actual staging ideas, to conceptual ideas, to character and narrative analysis. And he's got a dream (all local!) cast to work with...

Between you and me, I've always hated blocking. It's the hardest part of directing. It's like I have to eat my vegetables before I can have my cake. And if you're wondering, the cake is the polishing phase. I love polishing! At New Line, we usually don't work on scenes in-depth when we block; we want the actors to bring a great deal to their performances, and we let that stuff evolve as we run the acts and the full show. We have a lot of run-throughs. I think of our process as getting a sketch of the show up first, then over time, fine-tuning it and turning it into a beautiful painting.

So for this show, I get to skip the hardest part, and then jump back in for the coolest part! Thanks, Dowdy! The weird part for me is that, right now, the actors and Dowdy know the show way better than I do. I'm still discovering its awesomeness...

I went to the read-through-sing-through the other night, and was bowled over. First, by how great the vocals sounded and how much the actors already really understood these rich characters. But also, by how strong this material really is. Not only is it well constructed, not only is the writing very skillful, not only is the show really smart about how it uses storytelling devices, but more than anything, it feels really, really authentic.

Joe Tracz' dialogue isn't "showy" like Mamet dialogue; but it genuinely feels like it's coming out of the mouths of teenagers. And the lyrics aren't showy, like a lot of Sondheim and Bill Finn lyrics can be; if anything, Iconis' lyrics are more Hammerstein, because again, they feel real, not constructed, not self-aware Funny or Clever, just real. Like Hammerstein's lyrics, the less clever lyrics in BMC are often the most amazing.

"I Love Play Rehearsal" is a maser class in subtle, thoughtful, character writing. It's such a gift to an actor. When it's over, you don't remember a particular rhyme or a clever phrase -- you remember the feeling of it. You're not impressed by the artistry; you're moved by Christine's feelings. There's a gigantic heart behind all the sci-fi craziness of this show, and that is what audiences are responding to.

They're not walking out thinking, "Boy, Joe Iconis is a great songwriter!" They're walking out, thinking, "I'm not the only one who felt that way...!" The writers and their considerable craft become invisible. You have to be a really good writer to make that happen, to be artistically unobtrusive...

What other song in recent memory is as emotionally raw, as unadorned, as "Michael in the Bathroom"? There's no irony to put us at an emotionally safe distance, no artifice. Like "Play Rehearsal," the song pulls us inside it. At the end of "Soliloquy" in Carousel, you don't really feel what  Billy feels, though you might understand what he feels. That R&H foxtrot doesn't really conjure up very intense feelings. But at the end of "Michael in the Bathroom," you're inside those emotions.

You ache along with him...

Which is so important, because Michael is an incredibly important character, even though he's not onstage a lot of the time. This song gives him weight in the narrative. Taking time for his soliloquy tells us that he's important, and his confessional makes us care about him. He's no Miss Marmelstein. (Extra points if you get the reference!)

It's such fun watching this crazy, funny, emotional show come to life! Like so many of the shows New Line produces, Be More Chill has its own rules, but I'm confident we understand exactly how this beautiful show works. And luckily, we've got Dowdy at the helm.

I guess that makes me Gilligan.

The adventure continues!