We Can Make It Our World

The credits for Head Over Heels say "Based on The Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney." But it's so much more complicated than that.

First of all, there are two Arcadias. Sidney wrote it, then later substantially rewrote it, and the two versions are called The Old Arcadia and The New Arcadia. And there are some huge differences between the two.

But also, to say that Head Over Heels is "based on" Arcadia is only vaguely true. Maybe "inspired by" would be more accurate. The show's creators, Jeff Whitty and James Magruder, have taken a handful of characters -- out of a few dozen in the novel -- and some of the larger themes in the novel, and they've essentially written a new story. The show's plot takes elements from the novel, but almost never transplants them intact.

In the show, Musidorus loves Philoclea. In the book, Musidorus loves Pamela, and his best buddy Pyrocles loves Philoclea. But Pyrocles isn't in the show. In the show, Pythio's birth name is Mira; in the book, Mira is an entirely different character, the love interest of Philisides, who does not appear in the stage version.

But maybe there's something more important. Whitty and Magruder have captured so much of the spirit and intentions of Sidney and his novel. I've been reading a great book about Arcadia, called The Sound of Virtue: Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics by Blair Worden. He writes:
Yet the high spirits of the Arcadia, if they can divert us from Sidney's "delightful teaching," are more often its means. The teaching is cleverest when it is funniest, when the comedy points us to the ironies of the action. The test which he would, I think, have applied to his wit is whether it sharpens the critical alertness of his readers. A theme both of the public and of the private story of the Arcadia is the loss of wakefulness, of ethical vigilance. Sidney's readers, like his characters, must keep awake.

Change a few words and you'd be talking about Head Over Heels, with its goofy, wacky surface and its very serious issues of gender, sexuality, and human connection underneath.

One of the themes in the show that's treated both seriously and comically is the idea of virtue. Worden writes:
Virtue had a larger meaning for the Elizabethans than it has for us. It meant not only conformity to moral principles but the possession of divinely endowed gifts and powers. Those properties, if cultivated by education, would carry the authority of example and could change the world. There are people in the Arcadia who 'count' virtue 'but a vain name' or 'but a school name'. They could not be more wrong. Through virtue we honour the divinity of our souls, and through it we serve the public community to which we belong.

Virtue was hardly a novel ideal. But the Humanism of the Renaissance brought a new phase in its development. Behind virtue, in the Renaissance conception of it, there stands an ethical system which trains us for, and tests us in, both our public and private lives. Though virtue is God-given, and though Sidney's God is Christian, the ideal of virtue expressed in Sidney's writings is essentially classical. It derives from Plato and Aristotle and Cicero.

Many of the insights in Worden's book apply to both the novel and the musical, and I've learned some interesting things that give me insight into our story on stage. Worden writes:
People who share a political outlook will develop (not always consciously) a common political language in which to express it. The language used in politics by the party to which Sidney belonged has a large presence in the Arcadia. Perhaps our post-Romantic sensibilities expect the vocabulary of imaginative literature to be freshly minted, and are disappointed if it proves to have reproduced the phraseology of ephemeral political debate and polemic, if the language of poetry proves also to be the language of state papers. Yet the interchange of literary and political vocabulary is a recurrent phenomenon of the early modem period. Did Sidney plant the phraseology of current political debate in his work and invite his readers to notice its presence there? Or did he reach without deliberation for the language of the moment?

That's so interesting to me, because the show absolutely swims in the language and politics of today. Part of the delicious mashup here is the slamming together of four really different elements that shouldn't work together -- a setting and characters from a fictional Greek past; the language and politics of 1580 London; the music and feminism of 1980s America; and the language and politics of gender and sexuality in 2020. But as with all the great works of mashup, these disparate forms not only work together, but they also reveal fascinating things about each other in the process.

You can make up your own mind whether the sum of these parts is greater than the parts themselves, but either way, the sum of these parts is certainly something very different from the individual parts.

One of the cool things I've learned from Worden's book is the meaning behind the characters' names. I was shocked to discover, for instance, that "Pamela" was not a name until Sidney invented it for Arcadia, by putting together the two Greek words for "all" and "honey."

Sidney invented a lot of these names. Musidorus is formed out of the Greek words for "gift of music or song." The name of his love, Philoclea, comes from the Greek words for "love of glory." Interestingly, when he takes on the clumsily invented name Cleophila (you'll have to come see the show to find out why), it's actually a very clever joke, because now he's (accidentally) turned the "love of glory" into the "glory of love."

"Mopsa" is a name that appeared earlier in Virgil's Eclogues (which means short pastoral poems), but it may be another Sidney invention, based on the English word mops, which meant a country bumpkin, adopted from the Dutch word for a pug dog. But Mopsa in the novel is an entirely different character in the show. Interestingly, Shakespeare used this name later for a shepherdess who loves a clown, in The Winter's Tale. "Dametas" is another name from Virgil, both here and there, father of Mopsa. Mira is also a completely different character in the show, and her name comes from the Latin for "wonderful."

King Basilius' name comes from a Greek name meaning royal or kingly, which is also related to an Arab name meaning brave, fearless, intrepid. Queen Gynecia's name is the Greek title of many ancient medical texts about women’s nature, conditions, and diseases, literally meaning "women’s things," but it can also refer to the female sex organs.

"Pythio" comes from "Pythian," a word that means it's related to Apollo, because Apollo had to defeat a giant python to build his temple at Delphi. So the Priestesses there were often referred to as The Pythias.

There's such richness and complexity and intelligence in this show, all swirled together with the high-energy silliness. But if there's any doubt about the intentions of the show's creators, Magruder offers us some very smart notes "From the Adaptor" in the script. His notes start with this:
Head Over Heels is not mean. It is not self-aware. It is not snarky. It does not refer to other musicals. It is not anachronistic. It does not know that it is funny. Sex permeates its content, but it is not a dirty show. It is a show with an open, generous, inclusive heart for heartless times.

I don't always know why a particular show speaks to me at a particular time, but this one is clear. "It is a show with an open, generous, inclusive heart for heartless times." Have we ever needed that more?

Long Live the Musical!

We Are Alive. We Got the Beat.

In Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical A Little Night Music, Madame Armfeldt tells Fredrika that the summer night smiles three times -- "The first smile smiles at the young, for they know nothing. The second at the fools who know too little. And the third at the old who know too much."

It's a wonderful way to start this beautiful musical about music in triple time and humans in love triangles.

But it occurs to me that it applies to Head Over Heels too. Maybe because it's more of a universal truth than we realize. Maybe because we are all, at one time or another, young, foolish, and old. And I guess in that way, it describes a single human life too. As Puck declares in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" And none of us is exempt from the charge, though we might like to deny it. Touchstone says in As You Like It, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."

Like Night Music (and Midsummer Night's Dream), Head Over Heels presents us with a collection of couples. In Night Music, they are all wrongly coupled, so they all need to de-couple and re-couple. In Head Over Heels, most of the characters are with the correct partner, but there are lots of challenges and hurdles in their paths.

Arguably, Philoclea and Musidorus are the young who know nothing. They aren't shackled by tradition into believing they can only marry within their social class.

Pamela and Mopsa are the fools who know too little. They are older and should know better, but Pamela can't face her feelings, and so Mopsa is afraid to press the issue. Both of them have feelings that are blocked. They "know" more than the kids do about love, but they don't know enough to be happy, till the end.

But also... Dametas and Mira are fools too -- old enough to know better, but too blocked by tradition, convention, and hurt feelings.

And of course, King Basilius and Queen Gynecia are the "old" who know too much. They've lived so much life together, they have so much baggage, and their relationship has been reduced to little more than bickering. Their only hope is to return to the simplicity and joy of young love; they need to meet each other fresh, without the baggage of a 25-year marriage, without the inescapable hurts, wounds, and petty injustices of a long-term relationship.

But what's the point of the metaphor of the summer night smiling. Why does it smile? Is it amused? Indulgent? Maybe it has to do with the fact that these love affairs and obstacles are very serious to the people involved; they're only funny to us on the outside, perhaps largely because we recognize our own foolishness in these characters.

So in the worlds of Night Music and Head Over Heels, as different as those shows are, love is confusing and difficult in the first person, and hilarious in the third person. Kind of like someone slipping on a banana peel...

It leads us back to one of my central ongoing arguments, that no one goes to the movies or theatre for escape -- they go for connection. Audiences want stories that connect them to the rest of the human race, stories in which they can see themselves and their lives, stories in which they are reminded that they are not alone, that all of us go through difficult and ridiculous challenges every day, that all of us fuck things up sometimes, and hurt others sometimes. Being human is messy.

And really, maybe that's the underlying point of Night Music, Head Over Heels, and most other comedies as a matter of fact, that being human is inherently ridiculous, and coming to that self-awareness is a part of growing up and becoming an adult. We all know nothing at some point in our lives, we all know too little, and we all know too much. It's what keeps us humble. Or at least it should.

Or as I wrote in my fake Gilbert & Sullivan show, Bloody King Oedipus!, "Life's a funny proposition and we don't know anything." And that's why we tell stories.

Maybe the trick -- and the lesson these shows try to teach us -- is to embrace our human failings, missteps, and comic stumbles. Most love stories are comedies because love is crazy. It's what makes us human. After all, animals don't accidentally fuck up relationships with silly assumptions and insecurities; that's a human thing.

At the end of Head Over Heels, Gynecia notices that they've traveled in a circle, and Pythio says
Indeed, and to draw a circle: One must
End where one began. Yet who resembles
Any of the Fools who started on the journey here?

The cast then turns to the audience and leaves them with this
Go round and round --
Like light and light --
Descending day --
And breaking night.
Our roads shall shortly separate;
What may endure we now create;
Remember now this present sweet;
We are alive.
We got the beat.

There's so much there, that traveling in a circle is part of life, that everything in life is a circle, and no matter how bad today is, the sun still rises tomorrow. The characters (or is it the actors?) tell the audience that this communal experience is soon over, and we'll go our separate ways, but the telling of this story tonight has created something which will endure, in memory, in experience, in the self-awareness we take with us when we leave. The show is over, but it will stay with us. That's the magic of storytelling.

These lines finish with a celebration of Now (we might even call it "A Vision of Nowness"), "this present sweet," this communal, uniquely human experience of storytelling, but also a celebration of living in the moment, of being present in our lives, instead of living in past regrets or future fears. What matters most is that we are here today. We live. We love. And our life force -- our beat -- goes on, even after our time on Earth has passed. That life force is individual, but it's also communal, and we sit in a darkened theatre to celebrate that communion and to be nourished and changed by it.

We are all human, flawed and ridiculous, but we got the beat.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Tickets are going fast! Click here to get yours!

Head Over Heels

Head Over Heels is sui generis.

I love that term, sui generis. It means it's totally unique, literally, "of its own kind." So many shows New Line has produced fit that description -- Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, Threepenny, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Yeast Nation, Assassins, Celebration, Lizzie, Jerry Springer the Opera, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Man of La Mancha, Spelling Bee, Floyd Collins, Hair, Forbidden Planet, Hedwig, Sunday in the Park... I could go on for days.

Head Over Heels is another one, and it's been such fun exploring it and figuring out what its rules are, how it operates, what its creators meant it to be. Like all those other shows I listed, Head Over Heels does not operate like any other musical. Its universe, its style, its content are all totally unique to this story.

We live in an age of mashup, the art of combining forms and content that shouldn't go together, to form something new that reveals interesting truths. Head Over Heels is one of the coolest, most interesting mashups I've yet encountered, slamming Elizabethan poetry up against 1980s punk-pop, and slamming them both up against the sexual and gender politics of today. It's a heady brew.

The result is breathtaking -- funny, shocking, ironic, surprising, ridiculous, revealing, smart, insightful, and deliciously goofy. Our story follows a clueless royal family comically stumbling and fumbling their way toward meaningful human connection, while navigating oracles, mystical (often singing and dancing) animals, and love in all its maddening complexity. This show follows Sondheim's Cardinal Rule -- Content Dictates Form. In other words, the story tells us how to tell it. In this world, love doesn't follow any normal rules, so neither does the show. Gender is nearly irrelevant here, and along with the royal family, we in the audience find many of our preconceptions and assumptions turned gleefully upside-down. But though sexuality permeates the plot, this isn't a story about sex; it's a story about connection and self-awareness -- and how one requires the other.

Only after these characters are able to reach some self-awareness are they able to connect meaningfully. And the road to that self-awareness is very painful for them and very, very funny for us. We can laugh at them partly because the show swims in irony, and that gives us some emotional distance. But also because we can all see ourselves and our own ridiculous blunders in the hilarious characters and actions on stage.

And in that recognition, we in the audience also achieve some amount of self-awareness and connection, along with the characters.

The show's writers, Jeff Whitty and James Magruder, have given us a clear road map to follow -- every assumption we have is up for grabs in this world. Our usual ideas about gay and straight, male and female, love and lust, beauty and attraction, are all enthusiastically upended. And that often delicious dissonance between the real world and the world of Head Over Heels is the source of lots of rich, insightful, human comedy.

Princess Pamela, our protagonist, embodies these contradictions and dissonances. She is literally perfect, and though she often talks about being better than other people, it's never mean-spirited or boastful; it's simply something that is a fact. And facts can't be good or bad; they're just facts. She feels enormous empathy for all the people who were not born as perfect as she is. She's reliably understanding and compassionate about the shortcomings of others, and when she feels obligated to explain those shortcomings to them, it's out of a spirit of the most earnest helpfulness, since they're obviously not as insightful or intelligent as she is. Pamela is profoundly humble about her perfection. She would never flaunt it or call attention to it in front of those less fortunate, unless they could perhaps benefit from her inspirational example.

Part of Pamela's perfection is that she is virtuous. But virtue in this pastoral Elizabethan world goes far beyond being pure or innocent. Virtue is about doing good in the world, with good intentions, making the world a better place, making other people's lives better, and more than anything, serving as an example of virtue and decency and humility, for the benefit of her inferiors. Pamela's life is in service to others.

She is hopelessly superior to everyone around her, and hopelessly self-aware of that superiority, all of which is a mighty responsibility for her (her great cross to bear!), but she accepts that huge load willingly -- because she's just that strong. Hers is a life dedicated to service, serving her fellow humans by enriching their world with the perfection of her presence, her friendship, her humor, her insights, and of course, her astounding talent at dancing, painting, poetry, needlework, and no doubt, multiple musical instruments.

Just looking at her lines, it would be easy to play Pamela as an arrogant bitch, but that would miss the larger context and story, and the larger point our story is making about assumptions. It's never safe to assume anything in this world. Anything.

One particularly revealing line comes early in the show, right before the song "Beautiful," when Pamela declares, "But my surface is what's Pamela!" Like in any hero myth story, Pamela has to learn something and "grow up" by the end of our story. In Head Over Heels, our hero has to learn that she's so much more than her surface, than her royal persona, than her "good example." Pamela has turned off much of her inner life long ago because it's too scary to acknowledge, and Mopsa helps her turn it back on and become a whole person.

We never know what's coming next in this show because this world operates so differently from ours. And even for those of us who know most of these Go-Go's songs, the way they're used is consistently surprising and assumption-busting. And that's the crazy fun of this adventure.

It wasn't all that long ago that catalog musicals (or jukebox musicals, as some folks call them) were a punch line. At their best, these shows were guilty pleasures. But Jersey Boys showed us a catalog musical can be well-structured, well-written, and ultimately, really great, serious musical theatre. Then Michael Mayer sort of became the Hal Prince of the catalog musical, as he expanded and enlivened the form with the brilliant American Idiot, Head Over Heels, and Jagged Little Pill. Since we already produced American Idiot in 2016, it's such fun to work on this show now, and see how this sub-sub-genre is evolving...

I want to leave you with an interesting riddle I heard back in college, that directly relates to some of the themes in our show. If you catch me in the lobby during our run, I'll tell you the answer. Here's the riddle.
A young man is brought into a hospital emergency room from a terrible car accident in which his father was killed. They rush him into emergency surgery, but the surgeon comes in, sees the boy, and says, "I can't operate on this boy -- this is my son!" How is this possible?

Ticket sales are really strong, so get your tickets now -- just click here! I can't wait to share this amazing, brilliant musical comedy with our audiences. You'll love it, I promise.

Long Live the Musical!

'Twas a Year Full of New Line, 2019

'Twas a year full of New Line, a wild cavalcade,
A trio of shows, like a misfit parade,
Exploring the Others, the Different, the Weird;
Yes, all of the folks that the mainstream has feared.
And watching those Misfits and Others succeed
Against primal forces of hate and misdeed,
Spun lessons those people in power should heed.

La Cage is a classic, subversive, old thing
That we shrunk to human proportions last spring.
It isn't a comedy, deep in its heart;
It's a drama of family and love and of art.
It teaches us what really matters and why,
(But under the surface, subversive and sly);
And we fall in love with a wife who's a guy.

In June, it was sci-fi, the fierce Be More Chill,
On Broadway, but running on New Line's stage still.
A cast full of young future stars trod our stage
And filled it was passion and humor and rage.
This wild teenage fable of Faustian shit,
Of Mountain Dew Red, and a pants hypocrite,
Became a gigantic, big-time, New Line hit!

Then New Line returned to a show smart and crazy,
The brilliant, subversive, hard-rockin' Cry-Baby.
A fable of teens being free, cool, and young,
With great rockabilly, some tits, lots of tongue;
A fable of justice all tangled with class,
And sprinkled with John Waters' Baltimore sass.
The Drapes know the truth -- we should all watch our ass!

So what's coming next? I'm so psyched I could burst!
A reading of Bloody King Oedipus! first,
Then Head Over Heels, the new Go-Go's sex satire.
And Urinetown, Brecht-ish artistic high-wire.
The year's been outstanding, but lest it's forgotten,
We have a surprise for next season we're plottin' --
We've snatched up production rights for Something... you've probably heard of...

Happy Holidays! Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're a glutton for punishment, here are my year-end poems from 2013201420152016, 2017. and 2018.

Everyting's Changed

And here we are at another year's end. The cable news networks are looking back on the top news stories of the year -- and the decade! (Yes, I know the decade isn't over for another year, but I fear we've lost that argument.) It's very funny to me that the vast majority of the pundits and experts still seem genuinely baffled at what's happening in our politics and our culture.

They shouldn't be.

I've been thinking and writing about this for a while now. We are in the middle of massive, fundamental change in our society, our culture, our communication, our health, our politics, our art, and our relationship to the world around us. Everything is different now from what it was twenty years ago. Everything.

And change terrifies many (most?) people. And as long as they're scared, it's going to be harder for them to acclimate to the new world that's taking shape around us. Jason Robert Brown was genuinely prescient almost twenty-five years ago when he wrote:
It's about one moment,
That moment you think you know where you stand;
And in that one moment,
The things that you're sure of slip from your hand.
And you've got one second
To try to be clear, to try to stand tall,
But nothing's the same,
And the wind starts to blow.
And oh,
You're suddenly a stranger
In some completely different land;
And you thought you knew,
But you didn't have a clue
That the surface sometimes cracks
To reveal the tracks
To a new world.

Of course, he was talking in metaphors and universal truisms, but that traumatic experience that is the core of every song in Songs for a New World is a universal human experience on an individual scale, but it's also the national experience Americans (and the Brits and others) are having right now. That is precisely how American conservatives feel right now. Whether or not liberals think it's legit, many conservatives feel like strangers in a strange land. They don't understand the rules anymore.

So what is JRB's prescription?
A new world calls for me to follow,
A new world waits for my reply,
A new world holds me to a promise,
Standing by...

That New World is waiting for us to arrive. We have to take action to get there. We have to grapple with all of this. We have to learn how to navigate the Information Age, the Browning of America, the Nano-tech Revolution, and so much more, including a fundamentally transforming job market. But when people get scared, they shut down and they look for an explanation, which often means they look for someone to blame. It's happened over and over throughout history and it's happening again now.

It's not that hard to understand the craziness in our world right now, as long as you remember that people fear change. And what does Yoda teach us? Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

That, in a nutshell, is America's partisan politics in 2019.

The answer to that is to keep going, to keep moving forward. And we artsies, we storytellers, have a big part in that. We are the ones who help our fellow citizens understand themselves, each other, and the world around us, through our stories.

But don't just take my word for it. President Obama once introduced a concert of theatre songs at the White House, saying "In many ways, the story of Broadway is intertwined with the story of America. Some of the greatest singers and songwriters Broadway has ever known came to this country on a boat with nothing more than an idea in their head and a song in their heart. And they succeeded the same way that so many immigrants have succeeded – through talent and hard work and sheer determination. Over the years, musicals have been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics."

But today our art form is changing as drastically and fundamentally as everything else, and that kind of change scares people too. Why do theatres -- and audiences -- want to see those Rodgers & Hammerstein shows over and over today? It's about comfort. Like Twinkies. In scary times, some people retreat into nostalgia.

But it's truly beyond my comprehension why anyone under seventy would want to see an R&H show again rather than seeing the astonishing, exciting, brilliant new shows being written now. In my personal opinion, every song in Rent, Hedwig, Next to Normal, and Passing Strange is superior to anything Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote. I'm not kidding. They wrote great shows and broke some important ground (more than 75 years ago!), but R&H's writing is comparatively less interesting, less sophisticated, and less dramatic than the best work today. As good as he was, Hammerstein never achieved the level that Steve Sondheim, Bill Finn, Brian Yorkey, Andrew Lippa, and Larry O'Keefe have.

And that's how it should be. Our art form should be advancing far ahead of where it was seventy-five years ago. How depressing if that weren't true! But advancing means changing, and we know what that does to people.

The opposite of change is stagnation, death. Change is better, no matter how scary.

Toward the end of Bill Finn's masterpiece A New Brain, our hero Gordon sings:
Everything’s changed.
And nothing’s changed.
I mean, I’m different but I’m still the same –
I still complain.
But I’m not the same that I was,
Except I’m the same that I was,
But different…
At least I hope I’m different…

I think that sums up these times pretty well; that could be our country speaking. And significantly, Finn wrote that way back in the mid-1990s, about the same time JRB was writing Songs for a New World, and just a few years after New Line was founded. A New Brain taught us that change is painful and it's healthy, and both shows taught us that change is life.

I have no idea if Trump will be re-elected in 2020. It's certainly possible. It's gonna be a wild ride, however it all ends, and we have front row seats. And meanwhile, we get to keep finding great works of art that speak to these crazy, turbulent times. We will keep finding them, because humans have been going through times like these for a very long time, and they'll be doing it long after we've left this mortal stage. It's not just us. It's not just now.

That's a little bit comforting, right?

Long Live the Musical!

It’s Pandemonium and Plague!

As I work on and think about Oedipus the King and my musical adaptation Bloody King Oedipus!, I continually come to new understanding of the original play and how it works. It's truly one of the richest pieces of theatre I've encountered, and it somehow feels surprisingly contemporary. I've been reading a really wonderful book called Searching for Oedipus: How I Found Meaning in an Ancient Master­piece, by Ken Glazer, which has given me some amazing insights into this material.

I had the fun of interviewing Glazer for my Stage Grok podcast, which you can listen to here.

One thing that has really struck me -- I realize that King Oedipus and Queen Jocasta are a lot like today's Trump supporters. There's something really terrible they sort of know but can't possibly bring themselves to admit, because the cost of admitting it seems just too high.

In the case of Trump supporters, they largely voted for him because he's a "bad boy," and those voters believed Washington need to be "shaken up." Be careful what you wish for. Now they have to watch one outrage after another, one corruption and cover-up after another, one embarrassment after another. But if they admit that Trump really is as incompetent, as amoral, and as ignorant as he is, then they have to admit that they were conned by a decidedly amateurish and transparent con man.

Likewise, in the Oedipus story, it seems mind-boggling that Oedipus and Jocasta could hear this parade of evidence, yet still cling to their fragile constructed reality. You might wonder why it takes them so long to finally put the pieces together and understand the big picture. The cost of that understanding is massive -- literally life-destroying.

They have an incentive of epic proportions for cowering behind their confirmation bias. So much rides on maintaining the reality they've constructed, yet that reality becomes less and less stable with each scene, like a high-stakes game of Jenga.

Another thing I've noticed -- almost all the "important" action of the story takes place offstage and the characters tell us about it. That's supposed to be a Big Theatre No-No. (Even though Shakespeare did it a lot.) But the deeper I get into the work, the more clearly I see that the most important action does not take place offstage. In fact, the most important action of the story is the revealing and reacting to the stories of the offstage action. The show isn't about those offstage events; it's about the truth coming out at last and the consequences that brings. It's about what Oedipus does with the information he gets.

Almost the entire action of the play is storytelling. And significantly, the audience is always ahead of the characters. We always know more than they do. And as we move forward in time in the present, we move backward in time in the past, with each story set earlier than the last. The first story (the Thebans explaining their current plight) is set in the present moment. The next story (Creon's trip to the Oracle) is in the immediate past. Then we go back to Oedipus beating the Sphinx, then back to Laius' murder, going all the way back literally to Oedipus' birth. Or as Glazer puts it, "As we move through the play, we travel further and further into the past."

It repeatedly blows my mind that Sophocles wrote this play around 429 BC!

Oedipus the King (and Bloody King Oedipus!) parallels, in certain ways, a modern murder mystery (which wouldn't be invented for centuries). Oedipus collects witnesses and clues throughout the whole story, to get at an elusive truth. But the mystery shifts. Glazer writes, "With Oedipus Rex, Sophocles both invented the detective genre and bent it at the same time, presenting a sophisticated twist on the detective format we've since come to know so well."

At first, the mystery we're following is Who Killed King Laius? But about halfway through, the mystery shifts to the question of Who is Oedipus and Where Did He Come From? We almost forgot about Laius' murder for a while -- along with the plague and misfortune that was originally the entire focus of the investigation. As Glazer writes, "The play is no longer about the killing of an old king; it's about the attempted murder of a newborn prince many years earlier."

I don't know why it astounds me to find so many elements of modern playwriting in this play. Maybe it's partly because Sophocles was writing about two thousand years before Shakespeare took pen to page. And yet, these are rich, complex, contradictory, deeply human characters. And the play is full of meaningful images whose meaning often comes clear only at the end of the show, like the dozens of references to (literal and metaphorical) seeing and blindness.

There's also the issue of feet. The famous Riddle of the Sphinx, which only Oedipus can solve, is all about feet. We find out late in the play that Oedipus' name means "swollen foot" -- though some scholars argue a better translation is "know foot." Though he can solve the Sphinx's riddle, he can't seem to solve his own, which also comes down to feet.

There are also father figures everywhere in the play, not incidentally including Oedipus' adopted father King Polybus and his real father, King Laius, who sent Oedipus to be murdered but who ended up murdered by Oedipus instead. But most of the other main characters are father figures as well. Glazer writes, "Each is old enough to be Oedipus's father and each performs a specifically paternal fucntion in Oedipus's life: Tiresias fosters Oedipus's pyschic good, by having kept the truth a secret; Creon his political good, by allowing him to rule; the Corinthian messenger his social good, by having brought him to the king and queen of Corinth; and the Theban shepherd his biological good, by saving him from death as an infant."

What makes the play seem even more modern is something Glazer noticed: "The progression of the play from Teiresias through Creon and the Corinthian messenger to the Theban shepherd represents in effect a voyage back in time, a 'recovery of increasingly earlier and therefore more deeply buried memories, exactly as in a psychoanalysis.'"

Another thing that makes it feel more contemporary is the ambiguous and ironic relationship these characters have with religion, morality, the oracles, etc. Morality and piety are up for debate here. Glazer writes:
But the most ironic, and to me the most interesting, of all these scenarios is the one in which a prophecy that something terrible will happen is fulfilled by the very steps taken to keep it from happening. Now, usually, when you predict that something bad will happen, you do so to try to prevent it; the prediction is in the form of "If you don't do such and such or stop doing such and such, this or that will happen." Sometimes the prediction is taken to heart and disaster averted. As Yuval Noah Harari puts it in his book Homo Deus, "What's the point of making predictions if they cannot change anything?" Sometimes the prediction is ignored and disaster ensues, as when a smoker ignores cancer warnings or the Trojans ignore Cassandra's predictions of doom. In the latter situation, the problem is a failure to take the gloomy warning seriously. But sometimes the prophecy comes true precisely because it was taken seriously; paradoxically, the recipient would have been better off ignoring it altogether: That's the self-fulfilling prophecy, and Oedipus Rex provides us with not just one but two of the greatest examples of it. In fact, the examples are so vivid that the great twentieth-century philosopher of science Karl Popper ( 1902-1994) invoked Oedipus when he analyzed the phenomenon of the selffulfilling prophecy, calling it the "Oedipus effect."

We like to think irony is a modern device. I often talk about how American culture became fiercely ironic in the 1960s. But irony goes waaay back. Glazer writes about the play's title:
If you were to look at multiple translations of Oedipus Rex, you might be puzzled by a curious thing about them: In some translations, the play is called Oedipus Rex; in others it's called Oedipus Tyrannus. Why the different names? What's the difference?

I, too, was puzzled at first. When I looked into it, I learned that, actually, there was an important distinction in ancient Greece between a ruler who was a "tyrannus" ("tyrant") and one who was a "rex." "Tyrannus" means "tyrant," though not in the modern sense of a bad, autocratic ruler; it simply refers to a ruler who acquired power through his own actions, possibly but not necessarily through the use of violence. A "rex," a king, on the other hand, is a hereditary ruler.

But that's more than just interesting trivia. Oedipus thinks he's a Tyrannus, but he's really a Rex. And the difference between those two is the entire story. As Glazer puts it, "In a sense, he learned he was legitimate and illegitimate at the same time."

Another reason the play feels modern is inherent in classical tragedy. Glazer writes:
After Aristotle, the most influential thinker on tragedy was probably [philosopher Georg] Hegel. I've always found Hegel almost impossible to understand, but his theory of tragedy is actually comprehensible, and it isn't bad. His big idea about tragedy is that it's about conflict, not between right and wrong but between right and right. The best and highest form of tragedy, for Hegel, is one in which the protagonists are in conflict but each one is right in his own way, or at least there's no clear right or wrong.

That makes everything more complex, more ambiguous, more modern. Back in 429 BC, no less! Glazer goes on:
Nietzsche, has also played a big role in the debate about the meaning of tragedy (his first major publication was a work titled The Birth of Tragedy). Like Hegel, he thought conflict is at the heart of tragedy, but for Nietzsche the conflict was between two forces: the wild, untamed force of nature (which he called "Dionysian," after the god of pleasure and drunken merriment) and the force of careful thought and reason (called "Apollonian," after the god of reason and light). In Nietzsche's view, Greek life and Greek drama were far more Dionysian -- in a word, wild -- than was acknowledged by his contemporaries, who held that ancient Greece was all "sweetness and light."

According to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy represents the thrilling clash and combination of these two forces, the Dionysian in the form of the chorus and the Apollonian in the form of dialogue among the characters.

It's easy for us to stay a safe, ironic distance from this ancient story of prophecies and oracles. But how many people today still take the Bible literally, and literally believe in the Book of Revelation? Which is nothing but a bunch of prophecies, much more bizarre than the prophecies we hear from Tiresias or the Delphic Oracle.

We might even go so far as to call the outspoken Queen Jocasta anti-religious, or even atheistic, since she calls bullshit on the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi (and by extension, all prophecies and all oracles). Again, that feels very modern to me. She sings in Bloody King Oedipus!:
What oracles predicted
Often ends up self-inflicted;
Don’t believe a fucking thing.

It has been such a blast getting to know the original play and working on my Gilbert & Sullivan adaptation of it. And like I told Ken Glazer when I interviewed him, I feel like I've joined this secret club of people who know and love Oedipus the King. It's a cool club.

It will be interesting to see how my musical version is received and understood by people who don't know the original play at all. The reading will be very helpful for me, in seeing what the audience does and doesn't get, if they seem to get lost at all, do they get engaged in the emotions, etc.

So come join us! Our public reading of Bloody King Oedipus! is Monday night, January 6 at the Marcelle Theater in the Grand Center Arts District. Click here for more info.

Long Live the Musical!

Quid Pro Quo

Most people who've seen New Line shows knows our work is usually very political, and anybody who knows me knows I'm very political personally. A lot of people also know that I've written a bunch of musicals.

One of the ways I practice my craft -- just as dancers and singers regularly take classes -- is to write parody lyrics. The day after Trump won the 2016 election, I wrote a parody lyric about Trump to the tune of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd."

Writing parody lyrics is excellent practice, for two reasons. First, it's really fun, but it also does for me what finger exercises do for piano players: it flexes and strengthens those muscles. One thing I learned while writing The Zombies of Penzance was that it truly is harder to write lyrics to existing music, and the lyrics usually come out better, largely because it's harder and more constrained. The more restrictions are placed on the creation of a piece of art, the more the end product is (usually) better.

And writing parody has that same virtue. And as a matter of fact...

I have a new one.

I watched almost all the impeachment hearings, alternately (sometimes simultaneously) both incredibly proud and impressed by the foresight of our Founders, and also so depressed at how un-serious so many members of congress were during the proceedings. These are complicated times.

And so a few days ago, like these things often do, the basic idea just popped into my head -- a parody song about "Quid Pro Quo," set to the music of the song "Dites Moi" from South Pacific. The rhythm of the music is almost too perfect.

So without further ado, I present, with deep apologies to Rodgers & Hammerstein, "Quid Pro Quo."
Quid pro quo?
Oh no!
Ignore the press buzz!
No pro quo!
It really was...

Trump says, "No
Pro quo!"
And so that proves it!
He says, "I
Never lie!"
Quo, ho, ho!

Hope this gives you a small chuckle in the midst of all this lunacy.

Long Live the Musical!

Bloody King Oedipus!

We live in an age of mashup.

The most recent example is a horror movie based on the 70s kids TV show The Banana Splits. But that's only the latest. There's the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and a million Facebook memes. My favorite lately is a picture of Micky Mouse as a Borg.

One of the most audacious mashups ever is Todd Haynes' brilliant 1987 short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (which you can watch here), using Barbie dolls instead of actors, to create one of the most compelling dramas I've ever seen, I shit you not.

New Line has produced wild some mashup musicals, like Bukowsical and Jerry Springer the Opera. And then there's my own mashup of zombie movies and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, The Zombies of Penzance.

Mashups fall under the broader category of Art Made From Other Art -- something I really love. Maybe that's because most of the great musicals (maybe even most of the good ones) are adapted from other sources, movies, novels, plays, TV shows, poems, comic books, graphic novels, nonfiction books, etc.

Think of all the great musicals that came from other storytelling forms. Rent was based on the famous opera La Vie Boheme, even more on the original novel, Scenes de la vie de boheme (which is hilarious, by the way), and also on Jonathan Larson's own life and friends. The great musical theatre masterpiece Follies was based on a famous photograph of Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of the razed Roxy Theatre, and also on a murder mystery musical Sondheim and Goldman were trying to write, called The Girls Upstairs. The classic Fiddler on the Roof was based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, and also on a famous painting by Marc Chagall.

But the mashup is a particularly potent subgenre of art made from other art. In most cases, part of the point of a mashup is to combine two forms which seem to be incompatible. Like telling the story of Alexander Hamilton in the language of 21st century hip-hop. But the best mashups reveal something new and meaningful and surprising, like Hamilton does. Like Little Shop of Horrors and Jerry Springer the Opera both do.

In 2013, I was fascinated with mashups and decided to try combining zombie movies (which I love) with Gilbert & Sullivan operettas (which I love). The result was The Zombies of Penzance, which turned out to be a big success. We published the script and score, and released a cast album.

While we were running Zombies last fall, I started thinking about all the other things that would mashup up well with Gilbert & Sullivan -- I soon had a list of 10 or 12 further possible projects, the more ill-suited to light opera they were, the better. I also decided that I would eventually create a Gilbert & Sullivan horror trilogy. And before I could stop myself, I had started work on a second operetta, based on a play that should never, never be a light opera.

By the time we had closed Zombies, I had already written Act One of Gilbert & Sullivan's Bloody King Oedipus!, imagining how Gilbert would have adapted the ancient Greek tragedy of incest, murder, suicide, and disfigurement into English light opera. By February, I had finished the libretto and had passed it off to John Gerdes, to adapt and arrange the music. And we scheduled a public reading of the show on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.

Working on Bloody King Oedipus! has been very different than working on The Zombies of Penzance. For Zombies, I thought of my job more as translation than rewriting, keeping the same core plot and characters, but in translating the central conflict to one about actual monsters instead of metaphorical monsters (i.e., pirates), it also shifted the show's thematic content. The Pirates of Penzance is about the absurdity of social class, but The Zombies of Penzance is about the "Othering" and demonizing of those who aren't like us, usually by those who claim the highest morality. Of course, as befits Gilbert & Sullivan, the conflict is raised to ridiculous proportions in this case, since the Others are actually zombies.

But Bloody King Oedipus! has no relation to Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience, the score I've plundered this time. Instead of re-fashioning Gilbert's story, I chucked out Gilbert's text entirely and started fresh. This time, my model was the ancient Greek play Oedipus the King -- I worked from four different translations of the script. I took Sullivan's music and wrote an entirely new libretto. I did move a few pieces of music around, and I cut one small section of music.

I realized early on that the humor of Bloody King Oedipus! comes entirely from the mashup, even more so than it did with Zombies. The seemingly impossible marriage of Sophocles' Oedipus the King with Sullivan's light opera score is a rich source of comedy.

After all, like they say, comedy is just tragedy plus time.

I realized the closer I kept to Sophocles' original plot and characters, the funnier it got. The demands of rhyme and rhythm and the catchy melodies give us an ironic distance from the horrors of the story. I learned quickly, as I did with Zombies, that anytime I wrote a "joke," it just wasn't as funny as playing it all straight. The comedy takes care of itself. The conception of the show itself is an evening-long joke.

It's the same lesson I learn over and over again (and keep forgetting) with each new project. Just tell the story.

The real challenge with both Zombies and Oedipus was figuring out the Gilbertian Twist, the ridiculous revelation right before the finale, which magically resolves the central conflict. With Oedipus, the operetta follows the play quite faithfully, until right before the finale, as the plot of the play wraps up, a new character arrives and upends everything we think we know, totally short-circuiting any emotional engagement we may have had. I think I've done a pretty good job of imagining the final twist Gilbert would have invented.

Once I had figured out how I was going to approach this, I sat down with the Patience score and four translations of Oedipus. I painstakingly matched pieces of music with blocks of text in the play, so I eventually had a very detailed outline of what each song had to accomplish. I only strayed from the plan once.

Then, one by one, with each song, I'd sit down, play through the music, read through the four translations for that section, figure out what's most important to get across, and then I'd start writing the new lyric. Sometimes it was fairly easy, and sometimes it was incredibly difficult and went through many rewrites.

Meanwhile, I was also reading books about Sophocles, about Greek theatre, and about the Oedipus trilogy. My favorite of those, if you're interested, was Sophocles' Oedipus: Evidence and Self Conviction by Frederick Ahl. It really helped me understand the original play. My favorite of the translations was the one by Don Taylor.

As I did with Zombies, I created an elaborate comic backstory, claiming that Bloody King Oedipus! is a real Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. You can read that on our Oedipus webpage.

This week, we go into rehearsal to learn the Oedipus! score for the reading January 6. I can't wait to hear these lyrics out loud and see if everybody else thinks it's as funny as I do.

If you can, join us for our reading and help me shape and fix this insane creation of mine. The reading we did for Zombies helped me so much. There's nothing like an audience to tell you what does and doesn't work about a piece of theatre.

A new adventure begins!

Long Live the Musical!

It's Not TV. It's HBO.

Sometimes, certain things that have nothing to do with musical theatre teach me wonderful new lessons about storytelling in general, but also by extension, about musical theatre. I think we too often forget how much the various storytelling forms have in common. The Top Two among those certain things would be the PBS docu-series, The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell (now on Netflix and Amazon Prime); and also Burno Bettelheim's brilliant book The Uses of Enchantment. Those two things are my holy scripture.

I recently stumbled upon three more short TV docu-series about writing and storytelling that blew my mind and may well blow yours.

Ridley Scott's Prophets of Science Fiction, each episode dedicated to one of the great science fiction writers -- Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Jules Verne, Heinlein, Asimov, and George Lucas. It's on Amazon Prime, but you can also watch it online for free here.

James Cameron's The Story of Science Fiction, each episode exploring one sub-genre of sci-fi, including -- aliens, space, monsters, dark futures, intelligent machines, and time travel. Cmaeron talks with Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Keir Dullea, Max Brooks, John Lithgow, Keanu Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul Verhoeven, DC Fontana, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, and others. It's on Amazon Prime, but not for free; but you can watch it free on the AMC website.

Eli Roth's History of Horror, each episode looking at one kind of horror movie -- zombies, slashers, demons, vampires, ghosts, etc. Roth (director of Hostel, Saw, etc.) talks with Rob Zombie, Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Lee Curtis, Linda Blair, John Landis, Jack Black, and others. You can watch it free on the AMC website, or you can watch it on Amazon Prime, if you subscribe to the add-on channel Shudder.

But more than anything else, the work that has had the greatest impact on me (aside from the great musicals) is a group of cable dramas. They have virtually nothing to do with each other.. but there are two parallels among them. First, they all debuted on HBO, the channel that invented genuinely fearless television drama. Second, as someone (I forget who) pointed out, network TV shows find the extraordinary in the ordinary (like an alien living with a family in the suburbs, or preternaturally clever kids in an otherwise "normal" household); but HBO dramas explore the ordinary in the extraordinary (like the home life of a mob boss, a workplace drama set in a maximum security prison, and a troubled young man finding himself in a mystical traveling carnival).

If you are (or would like to be) a director, an actor, or a writer, I seriously urge you to explore these shows. As far as I'm concerned, they are all masterpieces of television drama, and they taught me thousands of lessons about character development, story structure, backstory, motivation, focus, suspense, ambiguity, subtext, and maybe most interesting, the relationship between an episode arc, a season arc, and a series arc. Here they are:
The Sopranos
The Wire

I might be persuaded to add Showtime's brilliant Dexter, and for those even more narratively adventurous, David Lynch's Twin Peaks.

OZ -- I remember the first time I saw an episode of Oz, it felt almost exactly like the first time I watched Fellini's 8 1/2, like all of a sudden the old rules just didn't apply anymore, like suddenly anything was possible in this art form. Television can be this? The show's creator Tom Fontana had created a whole new universe of possibilities for dialogue, plot, camera work, acting style, the Fourth Wall, sex, violence, raw emotion, the use of music, I could go on for hours. It's not an easy show to watch, but it's so powerfully engaging. I've watched the entire six-season series six times. I shit you not.

THE SOPRANOS -- I came into this series the first time, sometime in the third season, but as I've done with Oz, I've now watched all six seasons of The Sopranos six times. I recently started a seventh trip, and I'm still finding things I hadn't noticed before. It's really that rich. What I love most about it is that the vast majority of what's important is in the subtext. It's a really complicated, intricate tapestry of characters, motivations, and storylines. It's like a network TV workplace drama mashed up with Scorsese films. In the very first episode of the series, creator David Chase tells us exactly what the series is about and how it will end. And if you're wondering, I thought the controversial final moments of the series were utterly perfect, the only legit way to finish it.

CARNIVALE -- Likewise,  in the very first episode of this series, creator Daniel Knauf tells us exactly what the series is about and how it will end. Of course you don't recognize that he's done that until you finish watching the last episode of the series. It's like he's a master magician, always misdirecting us, but also subtly feeding us everything we need to keep moving forward in the story. This is such an amazing series, but if you watch it, you have to allow yourself to go for the ride without having to understand everything that happens. It's just that kind of story, a horror-mystery-drama. Eventually everything will make sense. Once you get to the end of the second season (it got cancelled after that), literally everything that came before will make sense. It's incredibly satisfying in that way, and a master class in how to engage and hold an audience.

DEADWOOD -- Like the others, the writing, acting, directing, design, etc. are all simply extraordinary, so far above the quality of even the better network television shows. But this brutal, brilliant series created by David Milch has two really special elements. First, a lot of the narrative comes from real world events and real people, from diaries, news items, etc. It's an incredibly fun history lesson. But also, the writing is a kind of Wild West Shakespeare, an incredibly complex and dense language that's both poetically elevated and also profoundly vulgar and obscene. Milch explains that the only way he could make a modern audience feel the danger and lawlessness of this time and place, something so foreign to us now, was to make the language itself shocking and "lawless." It's another genuine masterpiece of television, and I guarantee that college students will study this dialogue for years to come.

THE WIRE -- Like the others, every element of this show is simply perfect. But unlike the others, this feels like documentary, and unlike the others, its large narrative arc over the whole series is not entirely linear. It really feels like you're in the room with these deeply flawed cops trying to fight the War on Drugs. And the longer you watch it, the less clear it becomes who are the Good Guys and who are the Bad Guys. It's raw, brutal, episodic drama. And it's brilliant.

Now ask me why HBO has turned out so many masterpieces. Total freedom. There are essentially no rules. Who's attracted to that environment? The most fearless and adventurous artists, who usually also turn out to be the best. And sure, more than twenty years after this new Golden Age of Television started, HBO is no longer the only place to go for great television drama. But without HBO, and in particular, Oz and The Sopranos, we probably wouldn't be in a new Golden Age.

I have often thought about the fact that the new Golden Age of Television started right around the same time as our new Golden Age of American Musical Theatre started, in the mid-1990s. I've always meant to find out if other art forms launched new Golden Ages in that same period, but I haven't yet... Was it coincidence or was there something in the air as the century came to a close...?

When I was in high school and college, I devoured every book I could find about the musical theatre, I read scripts and listened to cast albums -- literally hundreds of cast albums -- and played through piano scores. I was a hungry, hungry fanboy. As one particularly potent illustration, I arrived at college Freshman year, owning 100 cast albums, and I graduated owning 500. I shit you not.

And then I came back to St. Louis after college, and soon after started New Line Theatre. And at some point, I found I had read all the books about musical theatre, so I turned to books about non-musical theatre and about storytelling -- and they taught me so much that's relevant to my work with musicals. I also learned that the best work in any storytelling form can be a master class for me, and I figured that out just in time for Oz to debut on HBO and change the face of television.

A cool side note about Oz -- they shot it in New York, so it's full of musical theatre actors, including BD Wong, Rita Moreno, Ben Vereen, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Joel Grey, JK Simmons, et al.

Any actor, director, or writer will learn so much from these shows. Give them a chance. But don't expect them to be easy to watch...

Long Live the Musical! And HBO!

You Could Drive a Person Crazy

Years ago, I wrote a blog post about the various types of people who show up at auditions. It was a fairly hostile post, when I look back at it, but my intent was to write a funny, cautionary post -- in other words, don't be these people. And that post is now my most visited post ever, with about 7,300 hits so far. I hope it spares me, Dowdy, and other directors some abuse, unintentional though it may be...

Now, as a sequel to that list, here's a top ten list of the kinds of people we encounter during the rehearsal process. Just as annoying. Don't be these people either.

The Screaming Meanie -- they think screaming is dramatic, and that actors show anger onstage by screaming. Good actors and directors know that anger has dozens of colors. Loud is only one of them. Find another!

The Beige Skeptic -- no matter how many notes you give, no matter how much you try to help, this actor does not believe they're as bland as they are, so being any bigger is out of the question. Every time I ask them to get bigger stylistically, they change nothing, but to them I think it feels drastically different. Many actors feel much the same way, but they learn to trust the director more than their own insecurities...

The Sweet Nothing -- this is the actor who is clueless, oblivious, and happy to be that way. They don't understand the show, they don't understand their role, their acting isn't very good, and yet they're also a really sweet, warm, charming, friendly human being. You want to be friends with them, but you wish you hadn't cast them in the show.

The Meltdown -- this is the actor who doesn't understand a section of text or music or staging, feels stupid because they don't understand it, gets angry because they feel stupid, and then argues long and loud over that section. Usually in front of the entire cast. This kind of person is incapable of saying to themselves, I don't totally get this, but I'll trust the director for now, and I'm sure it will make sense later. Too much insecurity.

The Stand-Up -- every comment, every response is designed to get a laugh -- and I don't mean only on stage. These people are really fun to have around at first. At first. After a while, it's dreadfully obnoxious. And it tends to make giving notes after a long run-through go on forever...

The Mugger -- they think all comedy is the same (it's not), and no matter the material, they indulge in mugging to the audience, "funny" voices, "funny" walks, sight gags (Broadway director Casey Nicholaw is serially guilty of this). The truth is, nothing is less funny than being able to see the effort behind it. The harder you try, the more money you obviously spend on the gag, the less funny it gets. Plus, if the show is good, even the craziest of shows, it doesn't need "help;" it just needs honesty.

The Skimmer -- this is the director, actor, designer, or choreographer who has no interest in looking under the surface of the script and score, who will happily reproduce the most famous production of the show they're working on, who will go through the entire process of creating and opening a show without ever once asking the question Why?

Captain Concept -- this is the director who approaches every show with one question -- what Concept can I impose on this story? Wrong question. The right question is How do I tell this story as clearly as possible? Step away from the steampunk.

The Resumé -- this is the actor (or designer, director, music director, etc.) who is constantly reminding you of their past glories. Anytime any show title is mentioned -- any show -- they leap into the conversation to tell you about the production they worked on, which was astoundingly good and/or ground-breaking and/or steampunk.

The Ecstatic -- they love every show they see, no mater the quality. These are the folks who see a decent amateur production and declare in all sincerity that it's better than the original production on Broadway. But it's not that they're just being kind to less interesting or less entertaining shows -- they genuinely believe every show is wonderful. There is something nice about that, but there's also something unfortunate about it. If you can't recognize what's bad, how do you learn? And if you think all shows are wonderful, you'll never get the supersonic thrill of seeing something that is truly extraordinary. After all, if everything is wonderful, there's no such thing as extraordinary...

(On a brief side note, we have a local reviewer who's a stealth Ecstatic, who gives 90% of the shows he sees a rating of 4.5 out of 5. If a show really sucks, he gives it a 3. Although, now that I think about it, on a scale of 3 to 5, I guess 4.5 isn't as high a rating, is it?)

Making fun of these people is good therapy for me (and maybe for you!). Anytime you create a piece of art with a whole bunch of creative people, you're going to have weird personalities and interpersonal fires to put out. It's the nature of the beast. Musical theatre is the most collaborative of all art forms. That's what makes it difficult and it's also what makes it so magical.

And the process of an actor creating and developing a performance is delicate, unusually emotionally precarious, and incredibly complex. So the more we directors understand that process and what our actors go through, the better we can serve their needs. That's why I think almost all good directors were actors first.

Finally, remember this -- if you are one (or more) of the types on my list, realizing you have a problem is the first step...

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. BTW, here's that post about the types of people at auditions -- click here.

More Complex Emotions to Reveal

Why bring back a show we've already produced? That's a good question.

We haven't repeated a show since 2012, when we produced High Fidelity for the second time. And we've only repeated a very few shows over our 28-year history: Hair (2000, 2001, 2008), Assassins (1994, 1998, 2008), Bat Boy (2003, 2006), and High Fidelity (2008, 2012). This season we'll add two more: Cry-Baby (2012, 2019) and Urinetown (2007, 2020).

And there are a handful of others I'd still like to return to: Hands on a Hardbody, A New Brain, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Next to Normal...

The first couple times we brought back a show we'd already done, people asked why. That puzzled me. I mean, these are all amazing shows, so why not? Surely we couldn't be so arrogant to think we'd found everything worth finding the first time out, or that our first production was utterly perfect. All these shows are very complex, in terms of content and in terms of style. We came back to them because there was more to explore, and to share them with even more people.

And really, Cry-Baby and its themes of class and injustice, is even more relevant now than it was when John Waters' original film was released in 1990 or when the musical debuted in 2007. Today in 2019, issues of class and injustice are more in the news and on our minds than they have been in a long time. Sometimes it even feels like we're moving backwards on those issues...

Which is a national tragedy. A tragedy worth exploring.

One of the best reasons to repeat a show is that there's more to discover, for me, for our actors, for our audiences. That's why we've produced Hair and Assassins each three times -- there's just so much there! And likewise, despite the smartass, wacky surface of Cry-Baby, underneath there is incredible craft, deceptively subtle social comedy, and endless little surprises.

A few examples...

In "Squeaky Clean," Allison sings, "I know one kiss from him would be enough!" On the surface, it means one kiss would be enough to know she's in love. What it really means (and is only hinting at) is that after one kiss, she wouldn't want any more. One kiss would be enough. In that same song, Baldwin sings, "If she'd only say she'd have me... what a catch!" On the surface, he's saying she's perfect for him, that she's "a real catch." But the ironic meaning underneath tells us that she won't say she'll have him, and since he needs her assent, that's a big complication, or "catch." (In the original production, Allison also tossed a baton in the air, so the "catch" also referred to her actual catching of the baton. I think that kills the joke with too much effort, and it gets in the way of the more interesting double-joke.)

The title phrase of "It's All in My Head" has that same kind of double meaning. To the characters, it means they can imagine all of it. It's all in their heads. To the audience, it means all of this romance actually exists only in their minds. It's all in their heads.

This kind of craft is all over the script and score.

But even beyond that, Cry-Baby is also worth bringing back because this show seems more relevant than ever artistically, as we sit here, now well into this new Golden Age of musical theatre, and as our society stumbles awkwardly into the Information Age.

First of all, Cry-Baby is a neo musical comedy, a show that uses the devices and conventions of old-school, mid-century musical comedy, but for more ironic, more political, more complex aims. One of the fatal flaws of the original Broadway production was that the director didn't know that Cry-Baby is a neo musical comedy. He thought it was a standard old-style musical comedy, and that's how he directed it. He didn't understand the material at all. And he killed it. It closed after 68 performances.

And then New Line rescued it. Literally. The writers thought the show was dead and we brought it back from the dead. We understood it and we brought the show back to vivid, subversive, hilarious life, to rave reviews and a sold-out run. And now other companies are licensing the show too. (We did the same thing with High Fidelity.)

What we understand is both how John Waters movies operate (the "good" characters are the bad guys and the "bad" characters are the good guys), and how this sui generis musical itself works. Under the surface of the narrative, this show charts a battle between Show Tunes vs. Rock and Roll. The Drapes sing rock and roll, and the Squares sing show tunes. And by the end, after an evening-long and surprisingly subtle sing-off, rock and roll wins.

Even the Squares think so.

This is interesting artistically because the musical theatre as an art form is having that same battle. This battle has been going on since the mid-1990s. And rock and roll is winning. Rock is becoming the default language of the American musical theatre. And now (at least, most of the time), the use of old-school show tunes is ironic, a device that tells us something about the character or their mindset.

I've realized that every second of Cry-Baby is ironic. Even the music is ironic. The choreography is ironic. Literally everything about the show is ironic. There are no straight-forward emotions or songs; everything, even the love songs, are dripping with irony. That's pretty unusual for a musical because musicals are best at conveying emotion, but in Cry-Baby, there's not a non-ironic emotion to be found anywhere.

Think about it. The show opens with what seems on the surface to be a traditional "Happy Villagers" song, where the community introduces itself and sets up the environment for the story. (That kind of song is going extinct, though, since so few musicals today have a big chorus representing the community.) But here in the world of Cry-Baby, the Happy Villagers are suburban elitist snobs celebrating conformity.

In older musicals, the story often balanced on a question of whether the hero can be assimilated into the mainstream community or be banished from it. Think about The Music Man and Brigadoon on the one hand, versus Carousel and Camelot on the other hand. Oklahoma! uses both outcomes, assimilating Curly and "banishing" Jud (by death). But in the case of Cry-Baby this community isn't one you want to join. We're rooting for Allison to abandon the mainstream community to assimilate into the non-mainstream community.

And then before the first song can end, it's interrupted by a rock and roll reply, a parallel statement from the non-mainstream community. And without the audience consciously realizing it yet, the show has changed the normal rules. Instead of a story about whether or not the hero assimilates or is banished, this is going to be a story about which community our hero assimilates into. And going even further, it also tells us that despite the title, Cry-Baby is not the hero; the good girl Allison is. Cry-Baby doesn't make a choice in this first scene; Allison does. And she chooses the non-mainstream community. And that conflict is the heart of the show.

Just a few pages later, the show's first love duet, equates love to invading sickness (a common theme in 50s rock and roll). Again, it sort of feels like a regular love song, but only if you don't listen too closely...

In Fred Astaire movies you always knew when the lovers were finally in love, because they not only moved well together, they touched when they danced. In Cry-Baby, we know our two lovers are meant for each other when Allison learns to sing rock and roll with Cry-Baby. But even at this pivotal, emotional moment in our story, the song is deeply ironic, mocking early rock and roll, mocking musical theatre love duets, mocking us for wanting those musical theatre love duets...

In Act II we get the traditional Second Couple Love Duet, sort of modeled on "All 'er Nothin'" in Oklahoma!But here in Cry-Baby, that slot is filled with a duet between Baldwin and Lenora, who hate each other. Weirdly, they do function as the Second Comic Couple, and this is the oddest and one of the funniest examples of this kind of song you're ever likely to see. None of the usual rules or conventions apply here.

In the original script, Baldwin and Lenora start the song, but Allison and Cry-Baby are two wedding mannequins in a store window, and they come down and join the song as fantasy lovers. In our production, it's just Lenora and Baldwin, and I think it's much funnier and much cringier this way, largely because of audience expectations for a song like this... and it almost feels right...

In the Act II opener, "Misery," the end of every verse returns to a list of synonyms for "misery." And when we get to the Big Finish, the lyric refers to this:
But for now, nothing’s left
But to join in this chorus,
Ripped from the world's
Most depressing thesaurus...

This is a surprisingly literal -- and surprisingly funny -- meta-moment, referring to the act of singing ("this chorus"), and to the craft of lyric-writing. There's also the fleeting but very funny image of a "depressing thesaurus," whatever that might be...

There are also rhyme jokes throughout the show that create odd, funny, meta moments, taking the audience out of the story and forcing them to think about the writing. It's very Brechtian.

In "Squeaky Clean," the Whiffles sing:
When vulgar people curse,
When heathens grunt and stammer,
We don't know which is worse –
Their language or their grammar.
They neither show refinement
Nor an ounce of self-restraint.
They may think it's proper English,
But ... It's not!

They ruin the rhyme by using correct grammar. That's so subversive. And so square! In the prison break number, "A Little Upset," Cry-Baby sings:
You say I’ll get out early if
I show you some repentance,
But I ain't never been too good
At finishing a –
(long, suspenseful pause)

Not only does the lyric subvert our rhyme expectations -- we're expecting the word sentence -- but we don't get there because Cry-Baby isn't good at finishing a sentence, and the one he doesn't finish, ends with that word. I think I'd call that double-meta. But there's also the double-joke of Cry-Baby not being good at finishing his jail sentence, because he's thinking about breaking out.

Baldwin and the Whiffles will go so far to avoid the word ain't that they ruin their own rhyme; but to Cry-Baby, that's just a common, ordinary word.

The whole show is full of that kind of rich, deceptively meaningful comedy. On one level, this story is about seeing beyond the surface of people and things, but unfortunately, Broadway wasn't able to see past the surface of this script and score.

We are.

It's been such fun returning to this incredibly funny, incredibly rich material. I can't wait to share it with our audiences again.

Ticket sales are great, so get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're interested, here are my Cry-Baby blog posts from 2012:

My overview of the show -- click here
The politics of Cry-Baby -- click here
The social context of Cry-Baby -- click here
New Line's rehearsal process with Cry-Baby -- click here
Cry-Baby and the neo musical comedy -- click here
My phone call with John Waters about Cry-Baby -- click here
Digging into the characters of Cry-Baby -- click here
Taking the comedy of Cry-Baby seriously -- click here
Cry-Baby's Allison and Grease's Sandy -- click here
The critical reception to New Line's Cry-Baby -- click here