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!


It Implants in Your Brain and It Tells You What to Do

There are several narrative threads running through Be More Chill. One is the Science Run Amok / World Domination story. The other is Jeremy's Hero Myth (and Faust story), following his journey to Growing Up. Interestingly, as we're watching Jeremy finally grow up, finally give up selfishness in favor of sacrifice, the same thing is happening with his father. Both of these characters have to stop wallowing in self-pity and instead put their loved ones' needs ahead of their own.

By the end of this story, we know both of them will be okay. They've both gained important enlightenment and both have found their paths. We hope. As our story opens, Jeremy and his dad are too comfortable in their current positions, and only a crisis will knock them out of complacency and into action.

And even though Michael seems as "stuck" as Jeremy, he's not. We come to realize over the course of the story that Michael is Jeremy's Wise Wizard figure (like Ben Kenobi or Glinda the Good Witch). In many (most?) Hero Myth stories, the Hero loses the Wise Wizard shortly after he sets out on his journey. Here the sci-fi angle of the story allows for a clever parallel; here the Squip literally blocks Jeremy's ability to see Michael, so Jeremy's Wise Wizard is taken from him -- by technology.

And it probably goes without saying that the Squip is the Evil Wizard in this story, seducing our hero to cross over to the Dark Side. And just as Darth Vader is largely machine, representing his lost humanity, in Be More Chill, the villain is pure technology, no humanity to lose. Jeremy Heere is close cousin to Anakin Skywalker, both crossing to the Dark Side, but for the Right Reasons.

Sort of.

Okay, not really.

It reminds me of my favorite bit of Star Wars dialogue. Anakin asks Palpatine, "Is it possible to learn this power?" Palpatine pauses dramatically, turns slowly to Anakin and says, "Not from a Jedi."

Anakin's Hero Myth is a tragic story because he does not learn the right lessons and he does not stay on his path. Jeremy has a happy ending because he does learn the right lessons, and he does find the right path for himself.

In many Hero Myths, the Hero has to go to the Underworld (think of the cave on Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back). Maybe in Be More Chill, the underworld is Jeremy's time under the influence of the Squip, maybe even more explicitly, the Halloween party. He has "died" to his former life of nerdiness -- and warmth and compassion, BTW -- and has become one of the (moral? intellectual?) dead. But Jeremy doesn't escape The Underworld just yet...

Their zombified Midsummer Night's Dream -- think about this, a romantic comedy about the walking dead -- also stands in as a great metaphor for the Underworld; and it's in that scene, backstage, that Jeremy finally escapes the Dark Side.

Even though we may not be consciously thinking about the Hero Myth parallels, we sense the Halloween party is a dark place, and Michael has come to "rescue" Jeremy, to bring him back to the world of the living, but Jeremy hasn't learned what he needs to learn yet.  And we sense, though maybe subconsciously, the various symbols and metaphors for death all over this story -- including Jeremy's metaphorically "dead" mother, who has left them.

The grief over this loss and all that comes from that is a central part of this growing-up story. Loss and death are part of life, Be More Chill is telling us; we lose people and we go on living. That's something we learn to do (or we don't), along with the million other lessons of becoming an adult. Jeremy and his dad both have to learn to let go of this pain. They both have to learn that other people don't make us happy; we do that (or don't) ourselves.

We choose.

Be More Chill is all about choices, bad ones and good ones, immature and mature ones. It's about the gazillion mistakes we all make along our clumsy way toward adulthood, only in this case, blown up to literally world-shattering proportions. After all, this is a Faust story -- what could be higher stakes than selling your soul to the (cyber-) devil?

Or world domination?

The show is so much fun, such a roller coaster ride, and the characters are so incredibly engaging, but this is a serious story. Like I argued in my first BMC post, this is a thriller. We don't realize it till we're smack in the middle of this adventure, but the show's title is a seduction -- Being More Chill sounds good, but giving up independent thought is bad (that's how we got Trump!). And in this case, giving up independent thought is how the Squip literally is going to take over the world.

Our story is a cautionary tale about surrendering your opinions or choices to others (whether in politics or religion or school), about the destructive potential of digital connectivity, about popping pharmaceuticals as an easy fix to complex problems, about bullying and peer pressure and other ways that humans inflict pain on other humans. We blame the Squip for the destruction, this soulless micro-computer, but somebody made that damn thing. Some human designed the Squip to do what it does. It's still humans hurting humans.

It seems that every theme in this story connects directly to 2019. I'd like to think that's part coincidence, and part not. I think artists, consciously or not, are always responding to the world around them, often before they even realize it themselves. The brilliant novelist Ned Vizzini created this story fifteen years ago. How'd he know what a pitch perfect metaphor his sci-fi story would be for the culture and politics of America in 2019?

He probably didn't, but I guess that's what great artists do. Lucky for us.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!


Be More Chill

Two years ago, I had never heard of Be More Chill, the novel or the musical. And tonight we start rehearsals for the musical -- even as it's running and breaking house records on Broadway. So what's the big deal?

Some of the reviews off and on Broadway have been very positive, others more mixed. It seems many of the reviewers don't quite understand what it is they're seeing. This isn't an adult world's point of view; this story comes from the point of view of these high schools kids. And to them, none of this is funny. To them, the stakes are impossibly high. We all remember those days, right?

Stylistically, Be More Chill is cousin to Little Shop, Heathers, Bat Boy, BBAJ, Urinetown, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Spelling Bee, and other shows in the new-ish category of neo musical comedy, shows that use traditional devices and conventions but with a more personal, more subtle, more complex, often more subversive, more political agenda.

There are politics here, but they're subliminal.

In Be More Chill, the premise is ridiculous, but inside that world, everything makes sense. It's much like what Howard Ashman wrote in his preface to the published script for Little Shop:
Little Shop of Horrors satirizes many things: science fiction, B movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend. There will, therefore, be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy. This is a great and potentially fatal mistake. The script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so the actors should not. Instead, they should play with simplicity, honesty, and sweetness – even when events are at their most outlandish. The show’s individual “style” will evolve naturally from the words themselves and an approach to acting and singing them that is almost child-like in its sincerity and intensity. By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private B movie – not because she’s “commenting” to the audience on the silliness of her situation. Having directed the original New York production of Little Shop myself, and subsequently having seen it in many versions and even many languages, I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.

I remember first reading that -- after already having seen and loved the show off Broadway -- and it really had an impact on me.

And besides, I'm not convinced Be More Chill is a comedy at all. It's actually a pretty serious, dark story, despite the many laughs. The same could be said of High Fidelity or La Cage aux Folles. But again, like Little Shop, Heathers, and Bat Boy, this is a thriller. That's not obvious at first when you're watching the show, because the show itself pulls a wonderful "fake" on the audience...

For much of Act I of Be More Chill, we think we're following a (sort of) traditional Hero Myth story, with Jeremy in search of the wisdom he lacks. His journey is about finding his path, his Real, as Passing Strange would put it. But Jeremy spends most of our story on somebody else's path, so it's impossible for him to get where he's going. Ultimately, he has to learn that he has to follow -- and embrace -- his own path in life.

We might even argue that Michael is the Wise Wizard figure in this Hero Myth story, with the Squip as the Evil Wizard....?

But really, Be More Chill is not Jeremy's story, and it's not a Hero Myth story. It's not till early Act II that we discover the real story here -- it's really a science fiction, world domination story, complete with the ubiquitous 1950s sci-fi theme of Science Run Amok.

It's halfway through our story that we discover we've been duped -- exactly as Jeremy has been -- because the Squip has hidden its real agenda. We start to realize that we're not following a young man trying to find his way; no, we're following a megalomaniac AI computer trying to take over the world.

That's a little different.

And that's where Be More Chill escapes any label or category you might try to impose. The true story, under the clever cloak of Jeremy's story, is about a malevolent force (a cousin to Terminator's Skynet?) that uses our greatest human weakness -- disconnectedness -- to seduce and conquer us. Jeremy's -- and our -- only salvation is in real human, face-to-face connection, without technology intervening, selecting for us, tailoring to us, manipulating us.

Could this theme be any more relevant at this moment in our cultural history?

But wait, there's more...

The zombie references that are peppered throughout the show, and the zombie apocalypse the drama teacher imposes on Midsummer Night's Dream, all point toward something fairly subtle amongst all this sci-fi-ish madness. Everybody is a zombie in Be More Chill, in one way or another -- and the show is arguing, many of us are zombies, stumbling purposelessly through our everyday lives. Jeremy's Dad is an emotional zombie, walking around, but "dead" inside. Jeremy and Michael are social zombies, walking the halls of school, but "dead" to the social elite. Even the popular kids are metaphorical zombies -- maybe they're moral zombies? -- following blindly without thought or question.

And all this is a stand-in for the real-world, teenage "digital zombies," walking through life with the eyes glued to their smartphones. The show even updates the classic "Telephone Hour" with "The Smartphone Hour." Again, it couldn't be more timely.

Jeremy's salvation is in breaking the zombie spell, forcing all these people to think for themselves, rather than blindly think and do what they're told. It's a subtle but potent metaphor.

This show is no silly confection. This is a rich, complicated look at life in the Digital Age, about teen depression, about bullying, and through it all, about the profound power of human connection; and therefore, subliminally, about the profound power of live theatre.

With all this in mind, it's clear to us that taking these characters less than seriously betrays the characters and betrays the audience, because the audience has lived these experiences. The writing is very honest and authentic -- and funny -- so if the performances aren't honest, we'll throw the show out of balance. There are some very deep, complex, serious emotions running through this story. The running joke about Dad's pants is funny, but ultimately, it leads to an incredibly powerful payoff in Act II that is packed with meaning and emotion.

This show has been so carefully wrought, and it's also so honest and big-hearted and authentic. The writing is so good. As much as everybody loves it on Broadway right now, I can't wait to share this with an audience in our intimate, little blackbox theatre -- all those emotions are going to be so overwhelming, so impossible to escape, so powerful.

Dowdy is the lead director this time, though we'll direct the show together. I can't wait to work on this material, and then to share it with audiences! Our actors are crazy excited to start work! And BTW, ticket sales are already really strong, so get your tickets now!

Another amazing adventure begins!

Long Live the Musical!


When Your World Spins Too Fast

It's an ugly time in our culture. I see pundits on cable news trying to explain why it's ugly and what we can do about it. But almost all of them miss the central point.

America is changing in big ways, very quickly, and to a substantial minority, that is terrifying. And right now, for those folks, fear motivates everything in them. These people fear losing power (that they never really had), fear losing social status (that they never really had), fear losing their culture (which was never as White or European as they think it was), fear losing the America they love (that never actually existed except in midcentury sitcoms).

And you know what the Jedi teach -- Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. It's not hard at all to see the truth in that, displayed every day in our culture.

Many years ago I was talking to Steve Woolf at the Rep, and I was noting a theme (the use and abuse of money) that ran through every play in that Rep season, and I asked him if that was on purpose. He said that no, that kind of thing was never on purpose for him, but also that halfway through each season, he would become aware of that season's theme. And then in retrospect, he could see how that idea had been swimming around in his brain and in the zeitgeist as he was programming the season.

I think the same thing happened to me and Dowdy when we were planning New Line's current season. We can now see that the theme that emerged, that connects the three shows in our season, is The Triumph of the Other. All three of our shows are built on that theme, but neither Dowdy nor I were at all aware of that when we set the season.

After working on La Cage the last couple months, and now, sharing it with our audiences, I see that this seemingly lightweight 1983 comedy, slightly revised in 2008, has profound weight and relevance in 2019. Even more than I anticipated.

I realized last night, watching our show, that the club in our show is America. The conservatives are fighting to close that club, but the people of La Cage ultimately win, not because of any arbitrary morality or lack thereof, but because the people of La Cage are demonstrably better people -- more open, more loving, more accepting, and less judgmental. In this story, the conservatives are a small, weak, ineffectual, scared group.

It's America in 2019 in micro.

In our country right now, "the La Cage people" -- i.e., social liberals -- are in the majority, according to every poll, and conservative America is shrinking. Conservatives still cause lots of noise and lots of trouble, but the Dindons of America can't shut down this new world that's forming itself right in front of our eyes -- a browner, more diverse, more socially liberal America than ever before, with no racial majority.

But also notice the complexity of this story. We see from both Georges and Albin some initial anti-straight bigotry. They do move past that fairly quickly, but that's their initial impulse, to be as fearful, as insular as their in-laws-to-be.

I think of all this as America's perpetual battle between the 1950s (conservatism) and the 1960s (liberalism). So many great musicals are about that battle -- Hair, Grease, Rocky Horror, The Fantasticks, Cry-Baby, and others.

But that's not what La Cage is about. There is no genuine threat here -- even if you don't know the story, you probably sense that the bigot and bully won't triumph, right? The question is whether the Good People will hurt each other in the process. The fun of the show's climax is the complexity of the problem they've created and the suspense of how they will extricate themselves and deliver the happy ending we assume is coming.

Right before the Dindons arrive for dinner, Jean-Michel says to the family:
All right, you three. Listen carefully. For the next twenty-one hours there will be people of a lifestyle far removed from the one you live. I beseech you, for the next twenty-one hours to dispense with everything you take pride in and everything that brings you personal joy. My future depends on it.

It's a funny line and it gets a laugh, but it also stings like hell. This is not just about disguise; it's about the suppression, the rejection of their very life force, of the joy and fun that gets them through each day.

I keep telling people that, at its heart, La Cage is really just about a middle-aged married couple and whether or not their relationship can survive this crisis. The brilliance of the show (and the original play and film) is that, just as in a John Waters movie, the Others are Normal, and it's the Ordinary People who are the true Others.

And so, even if we're not Other in the real world, we identify with the Others throughout this story. That's a pretty neat trick.

But on an even more basic level, this is a story about Joy, and whether or not Fear is more powerful.

La Cage aux Folles is all about joy -- both in the show's form (the joy of singing and dancing) and in its content. After all, what is our story about? How does our middle-aged couple survive the crisis? Their lives are filled with joy, and they share it liberally. That's how. The central conflict hinges on the potential destruction of that joy. But really, the action of the show can be charted as Joy embraced, Joy suppressed, Joy betrayed, and finally, Joy as healing.

It's all about joy. Which, I'd argue, is what the musical theatre is all about.

Once in a while, New Line produces a well-known show and we shock the hell out of our audience with it. Not because we change anything (we don't), not because we impose crazy new concepts on it (we don't), but because we take it seriously and we work hard to find all that's meaningful and beautiful in the material.

It stunned us last season that our Anything Goes was such a revelation to so many people. All we did was take the material seriously, to reveal how brilliant and smart and wickedly insightful the show (at least the 1962 version) really is. The same thing is happening now with La Cage.

Everyone is stunned by the emotional power of this story, but we didn't add that to the show; we just revealed it. They're stunned at the subtlety of Zak's performance as Albin, but all we're doing is bringing these characters to the most honest and authentic life we can. But again, we're not adding anything to these characters; just revealing what's already there. The story is overflowing with human truth.

Maybe too many productions don't do this simplest and most fundamental of things, taking the material seriously. But it's not magic; it's our job. And it's fun!

Ultimately in La Cage, Joy wins. As it will in the middle-aged relationship that is America. But as we learn from La Cage, it wins only through love and a little ingenuity. And the gays.

The whole run's been selling out. Just four more electrifying performances!

Long Live the Musical!

Mine Have Naked People

Midway through Act II of La Cage aux Folles we get the number "Cocktail Counterpoint." It doesn't really feel like the other songs in the show. I used to think it was just filler because they felt like they needed a song there.

I was really wrong.

This is a deceptively complex piece that delivers so much information. On the surface, it feels like just an Irving Berlin style stunt, introducing several independent melodies, then combining them into counterpoint. But it's more than that. Berlin did it for the stunt; Jerry Herman does it to further the storytelling.

In terms of structure, what does this music tell us? These people all may be singing at the same time, but they're not singing together. No one is singing the same thing as anyone else. For the most part, they're not even singing to each other. Everyone is at odds with everyone, even in terms of musical styles. And yet the fact that this chaos actually makes harmonic sense represents the civilized facades they each present, despite the deep contradictions underneath. The fact that they all sing different things at once, no one listening to each other, stands as a great metaphor for the story's central conflict.

Form becomes content!!

It's also worth noting that the song builds, in its second counterpoint section, to a climax that gets interrupted by Albin's entrance ("Here's Mother!"). The music finishes, but the vocals never do. Nothing has been resolved yet. All these tensions remain.

Significantly, in the scene after this one, at Jacqueline's, they will finally all sing together in "The Best of Times," not just the same words at the same time, but in harmony, and with choreography! Excepting M. Dindon, these people will be literally in harmony with each other.

The magic of musicals.

But the lyric for "Cocktail Counterpoint" is even more interesting than its music. There's so much important information here. Each lyric tells us so much about the point-of-view of that character, and why that point-of-view is a problem. Notably, each family thinks the other is weird. Eye of the beholder, and all...

Geroges is the first one to sing. There's a double joke in his lyric. First, he's so nervous meeting these people and trying to maintain the lie, that he's mixed up Jean-Michel's lie (that Georges is with the French Foreign Service, i.e., a diplomat), with the symbols of hyper-masculinity he earlier tortured Albin with, at the cafe, so the original lie weirdly morphs into the French Foreign Legion (i.,e., the army). And not just the French Foreign Legion, but a particularly gay point-of-view of the Legion...
I joined the Foreign Legion
With a sabre in my hand,
And crawled across the desert
With my belly in the sand;
With men who loved their camels,
And their brandy, and I swear,
Nobody dished, nobody swished,
When I was a Foreign Legionnaire.

Wait, what? The first four lines tick off the Beau Geste movie cliches, and then... WTF? Georges gets lost again in his outsiders' view of conventional masculinity. Read it close -- he's saying the Legionnaires may have been drunks and camel fuckers, but nobody was gay! And by comic extension, Georges is offering up camel fucking and drunkenness as obvious markers of masculinity -- even more than that, as proof of his masculinity, because he himself was a Legionnaire. Except he wasn't.

What does this tell us about Georges? He's a terrible, though admittedly enthusiastic, liar. He's terrible at being someone he's not. Exactly.

And then Jean-Michel passes out hors d'oeuvre plates, not stopping to think about what's on these plates he's been using for years. Madame Dindon sees two Greek boys having anal sex, but she's so sheltered, so brainwashed, she's can't even conceive that this might be exactly what it looks like. She does her best to find an alternate explanation...
Oh, what lovely dishes;
They're so delicate and frail.
Mine have naked people,
I believe they're only male.
Oops, I think they're playing
Some exotic little game...

And Jean-Michel snatches the plate away and finishes her rhyme for her: "Oops, I think that leapfrog is its name." A lie she is eager to accept. But look at her lyric closely. She takes in all the details. First, she sees the overall beauty of the plate, then she notices there are naked people in the middle of the plate, then she notices they're both boys, and just as she's working out what they're doing in that position, Jean-Michel rescues her, poor thing. She is not equipped to handle the complexities of the real world, which she's been sheltered from, for so long.

Then we hear from her oppressor, M. Dindon, and notice that, like most conservatives, everything comes down to fear.
This is even worse than I feared;
The son is strange, the father is weird.
To meet the wife, I’m actually afraid.
I prefer that Anne remain an old maid!

He came into this situation in fear, fear of the Other, fear of freedom, fear of difference, fear of loss of control, fear of what he perceives to be chaos. But also notice that his only complaints are really vague. He has no actual issues with them; he just doesn't like them viscerally. And his conditioned reaction is to withdraw from the world, to turn his daughter into Miss Havisham, rather than be tainted -- or worse, seduced -- by the Chaos. How many home-schooling Evangelicals today feel the same way?

In a delicious bit of narrative subversion, the cross-dressing, norm-busting, gender-fluid Jacob returns to get the last verse himself, to pass the final judgment.
It's appalling to confess
Our new in-laws are a mess!
She's a prude!
He's a prig!
She's a pill!
He's a pig!
So zis ... zis ... zis for you papa!

Jacob is the truth-teller. The Dindons are acting like Albin, Georges, and Jean-Michel are the Others, but here in this world, the Dindon are the Others. Here's it's their behavior which is inappropriate. When Albin takes them all to Jacqueline's for dinner, this process will be finished, and the Dindons will be the ultimate Others -- that is, until Marie and Anne cross over...

This song "Cocktail Counterpoint," this moment in the story, is what a writing teacher of mine called The Obligatory Moment, the moment without which the story doesn't exist. Everything before it leads to it, and everything after it leads from it. The whole first act is about the impending collision of these two very different families. This is that collision. And this writing is so good, it's a musical collision as well as a textual and thematic collision. And the rest of the show is the fallout from that collision.

What's cool is how this collision begins entirely inside their minds -- these are all "internal monologues" -- and Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein create wonderful tension by not letting the inevitable bomb go off quite yet. We know what's coming, even if we don't know exactly how it will play out, and throughout the scene at Jacqueline's, we keep waiting for the explosion...

And then Herman totally distracts us with one of the greatest of all earworms, "The Best of Times," and we forget for a minute about that explosion we were waiting for... And then...

Well, I wouldn't want to spoil it if you haven't seen the show yet...

It has been such a joy working on this amazing show, and the overwhelmingly positive response from audiences and critics has been so wonderful. But really, all we've done is take the material seriously. I still don't get why everybody doesn't do that.

We run through March 23! Come see us!

Long Live the Musical!

Come and Investigate the Dark Side of Your Soul

As I wrote in my first blog post about this show, the title La Cage aux Folles can be translated a few different ways, but the one that makes most sense to me is The Cage of Madwomen. And yet, while folles usually means crazy or foolish, it's also a slang word for effeminate gay men. Think about that for a second.

The name of the show -- and the name of the club at the center of our story, and the name of our show's title song about that club -- is all about ambiguity. As Georges quips in Act I, "If you can't be truthful, be vague." The title song itself, the lyric, is about how all the labels and categories are blurred, even erased, in this world.

Because we don't need them. Because the world is more complex than that.

It's the conservative Dindons' worst nightmare: social and cultural complexity. Or maybe we'll find out it's Mme. Dindon's liberation. (Fun fact: dindon is French for turkey.) The content of the show's title song is all about erasing the lines between male and female, moral and immoral, classy and tacky, "royalty" and "riff-raff," "Perrier" and "Canada Dry," etc.

What's the point? Labels are meaningless. People are individuals. People are who they are. Labels can't contain us. So whoever and whatever you are, you're safe here at La Cage. There are no expectations, no assumptions. During one of Georges' interactions with the audience, he says, "Duchess is that you? I didn't recognize you behind the moustache. It brings out your eyes." It's funny on the surface, but it's more than that. It's also about not judging, or maybe even more than that, celebrating what makes us individual.

Look at this funny, rich, subversive lyric...
It's rather gaudy but it's also rather grand;
And while the waiter pads your check, he'll kiss your hand.
The clever gigolos
Romance the wealthy matrons,
At La Cage aux Folles.

So it's gaudy (tasteless) and grand (tasteful). The waiter will steal from you and treat you warmly. And then a mention of rich women and their boy toys, right before we return to the title phrase, which means The Cage of Madwomen.
It's slightly forties, and a little bit new wave.
You may be dancing with a girl who needs a shave.
Where both the riff-raff
And the royalty are patrons,
At La Cage aux Folles.

It's both old-fashioned and up-to-date (remember, the show's set in the 1980s). And gender is ambiguous. And money doesn't mean much. And now we switch from a minor key to major.
La Cage aux Folles,
The maitre d' is dashing;
Cage aux Folles,
The hatcheck girl is flashing.
We import the drinks that you buy,
So your Perrier is Canada dry!

This place is both classy -- they have a dashing maitre d' -- and tacky -- the hatcheck girl is flashing her business at passers-by. And the "foreign" is a matter of perspective.

In other words, all bets are off. The usual rules don't apply here. In fact, virtually no rules apply here. Except one -- dignity.

The music returns to minor...
Eccentric couples always punctuate the scene;
A pair of eunuchs and a nun with a marine.
To feel alive, you
Get a limousine to drive you
To La Cage aux Folles.

The tone changes here. It's no longer self-depricatingly ironic. This is a weird place, but it's also a good place, a safe place, an interesting place, a place where you can be fully, unapologetically you. Where you can be alive... with the obvious implication that you're probably not alive anywhere else.
It's bad and beautiful; it's bawdy and bizarre.
I know a duchess who got pregnant at the bar!
Just who is who
And what is what is quite a question
At La Cage aux Folles.

This is a place of freedom and excess. Note that it's bizarre and bawdy, even bad, but it's also beautiful. The pregnant duchess embodies the ethos of this place -- Follow Your Bliss and Discover Your True Self. And don't worry about categories, definitions, norms, proprieties...
Go for the mystery, the magic and the mood;
Avoid the hustlers
And the men's room and the food.
For you get glamour
And romance and indigestion
At La Cage aux Folles.

You get everything! La Cage represents the yin and yang of our lives, in miniature. And as if in celebration of that, the music turns major as more voices join in choral harmony.
La Cage aux Folles,
A St. Tropez tradition!
Cage aux Folles,
You'll lose each inhibition!
All week long we're wondering who
Left a green Givenchy gown in the loo!

That last image is so subversive. Someone left a designer gown in the restroom. It instantly conjures questions -- was it a man or woman? what were they wearing when they left? who leaves their dress in the bathroom? But all those questions tell us everything we need to know about this place. We can't impose the rules of the outside world on the people and behavior in this world. As evidenced by the next, delicious lines...
You go alone to have the evening of your life;
You meet your mistress and your boyfriend and your wife!
It's a bonanza,
It's a mad extravaganza,
At La Cage aux Folles!

Then there's a big dance break and the Cagelles dazzle us. Eventually, Albin returns... and the music returns to minor...
You'll be so dazzled by the ambiance you're in,
You'll never notice that there's water in the gin.
Come for a drink and you may
Wanna spend the winter
At La Cage aux Folles!

Sounds like fun, no? The music turns to major one more time.
La Cage aux Folles,
A St. Tropez tradition;
Cage aux Folles,
You'll lose each inhibition.
We indulge each change in your mood;
Come and sip your Dubonnet in the nude.

That last image is even funnier when you know "Dubonnet" is short for "Dubonnet Rouge Grand Aperitif de France" (I didn't.)  Drinking that in the nude is even funnier to  me.

The Cagelles return for a can-can, the once notorious dance originally performed at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, a fitting tribute to the dancing girls that came before them. After the rowdy, carnal dance break, Albin returns and he brings the minor key -- and complexity -- back with him.
Come and allow yourself to lose your self control;
Come and investigate the dark side of your soul.
Come for a glimpse and you may
Wanna stay forever
At La Cage aux Folles!

You cross the threshold and your bridges have been burned.
The bar is cheering for the duchess has returned!
The mood's contagious;
You can bring your whole outrageous entourage!
It's hot and hectic,
Effervescent and eclectic,
At La Cage aux Folles!

Who wouldn't want to go to a place like that? We're in Shakespeare's Woods. We're through Alice's looking glass. And we're here to learn something about ourselves.

Songwriter Jerry Herman's subtle but powerful trick of switching back and forth between major and minor is really clever. The minor key gives us that sense of the dark side, the wildness, and the major key delivers the joy and playfulness. Like the rest of the show, it's ambiguous. It's the musical yin and yang of La Cage aux Folles and La Cage aux Folles, and it connects this title song to the major textual themes of the show.

In most of Jerry Herman theatre scores, he uses minor keys not to express sadness, but complexity. Look at "Ribbons Down My Back" in Hello, Dolly! and much of the score to Mack and Mabel.

He does the same thing in La Cage's "Song on the Sand," which also alternates major and minor, but for a slightly different reason. Here, the intro and first verse are about an only partly remembered past, but in the second verse when Georges switches to the present, the music moves to major. But before it ends, it moves back to the past and back to minor. The past is bitter-sweet, but the present is good. Relationships are hard, but this is a strong relationship genuinely built on love.

We think of songwriter Jerry Herman as one of the shining lights at the end of the so-called "Golden Age" of musical theatre, and we lump him in with other writers of lightweight fare. But Herman didn't write fluff. Even his earlier works, Hello, Dolly! and Mame featured decidedly subversive, nonconforming women, whose nonconformity up-ends everyone and everything around them.

Many stories have an "agent of chaos" who bring disruption to a story. But it's not usually the protagonist. Isn't it interesting that Herman's leading women are always the agents of chaos in their own stories? Merely the desire to control their own lives and destinies is disruptive to the men around them. Maybe that's why gay men like to read Dolly and Mame as subliminal drag queens.

And after all, isn't that essentially the story of La Cage aux Folles? Albin causes chaos by being who he is, and refusing to apologize for that. And isn't that exactly the kind of disruption at the heart of progressive political activism in America right now?

Who knew in 1983 that this musical would be so relevant in 2019?

We open this week! Get your tickets!

Long Live the Musical!

Toxic Masculinity

Have you seen the Gillette ad that inexplicably has conservative America's panties in a twist?

It's amazing that this ad charges into our already toxic public discourse just as we New Liners are in rehearsal for La Cage aux Folles, containing a song called "Masculinity." Imagine what the right-wingers would think of Albin! Oh, right, we don't have to imagine. That's our story.

Yes, it seems M. and Mme. Dindon are alive and well and living in America. After all, we've all seen in recent years the many and various indignities imposed on trans Americans and others by panicky Christians. As I wrote in my last post, this show may be thirty-five years old, and based on a film even older, but it's about right here and right now.

It's fascinating to me how much the controversy over this Gillette ad parallels the song "Masculinity" in La Cage. We find the song funny as we watch it, because not only is Albin terrible at performing Maleness; so is Geroges. Albin's the one being "schooled" here, but Albin arguably has more self-awareness than Georges does.

This one dialogue exchange over the song's intro is so perfect.
GEORGES. I want you to pick up that toast as if you were John Wayne.

(ALBIN prepares, does his best gunslinger swagger, then sits back down and lifts the toast, fanning himself with it.)

GEORGES: I thought I said John Wayne.

ALBIN. It is John Wayne. John Wayne as a little girl!

It's a punchline but it tells the truth. Albin is a man in his way; he's John Wayne (tough, strong) as a little girl (who loves to play dress-up and house). Makes me think of The Bad Seed. Tellingly in this world, it's Madame Renaud who does the best "masculine" walk for Albin to imitate. And when Georges points that out to him, Albin replies, "It's easy for her. She's wearing flats." His world isn't made for this kind of performance. He doesn't even have the right shoes for it!

It's only in retrospect that we realize that Act II cafe scene and the song "Masculinity" are as cruel as Jean-Michel's abuses and betrayals. Jean-Michael wants Albin gone; but Georges wants him to deny who he is -- including his real role as Jean-Michel's mother. Albin is to become "Uncle Al," not even a member of the immediate family! Which is worse? Georges sees Jean-Michel's betrayal, but not his own.

Look at the examples of manliness they offer up for poor Albin in "Masculinity." They start with movie stars John Wayne and Jean-Paul Belmondo, both of whom performed their masculinity as much as Albin performs Zaza. And really, they're not telling Albin to think of the actors, but the parts they play on the screen -- fictional masculinity.

Georges invokes the French Foreign Legion. According to Wikipedia, "Beyond its reputation as an elite unit often engaged in serious fighting, the recruitment practices of the French Foreign Legion have also led to a somewhat romanticized view of it being a place for disgraced or 'wronged' men looking to leave behind their old lives and start new ones. This view of the legion is common in literature, and has been used for dramatic effect in many films, not the least of which are the several versions of Beau Geste."

To leave behind their old lives and start new ones. That's a pretty potent reference. He invokes "Charlemagne's Men," i.e. the Christian Crusaders. That's also really chilling, considering who Georges and Albin are. And a "stevedore" is a dock worker, a manual laborer. (Makes us wonder if Georges has spent time down at the docks...)

Then the Renauds up the ante a bit, referencing Charles De Gaulle (France's World War II resistance hero), Rasputin (the notorious holy man to Russian Tsar Nicholas II), and the Biblical Daniel. No pressure, though.

Finally in the last verse, the stakes get raised to a ridiculous extreme, suggesting as manly role models the brutal and genocidal Ghengis Khan, the fictional Russian war hero Taras Bulba, the ruthless invader and plunderer Attila the Hun, and weirdly then, the gentler and largely fictional "Robin Hood's Men"...

No wonder Albin can't get it right. With competing role models like that...

In retrospect, we realize how wrong this whole scene is, how wrong it is to force Albin to masquerade as something he's not, to wear a mask not of his own choosing. In the club, Albin's mask and performance as Zaza reveal his truest self. But the mask and performance of "Uncle Al" will deny Albin's truest self. It's only when Albin rebels, discards the agreed-upon scheme, and appears in full drag as "Mother" that he's once again showing his truest self.

He is Jean-Michel's mother.

But it goes deeper than that, to a lesson we're taught in the brilliant musical, Passing Strange, that we are each on our own quest to find The Real -- our truth, our path, our journey -- but we all have to learn that our Real is different from everybody else's, so nobody else can ever tell you how to find your Real. As Stew tells us at the end of the show:
'Cuz The Real is a construct...
It's the raw nerve's private zone...
It's a personal sunset
You drive off into alone.

Here in La Cage, Albin has to find his Real, his definition of being a man, not Georges' definition, or the Renauds' or the Dindons'.

I am what I am.

Only Albin can find his path, and by the end of the show, we know that path is where Albin always knew it was. With family.

He -- and the others -- have to learn that really being a man means taking responsibility, stepping up. It's not about our culturally constructed models of masculine and feminine; it's about being strong and dependable. Being a man is about being proud of yourself and not apologizing for or hiding who you are. That's what Albin knows and what Jean-Michel has to learn.

When Albin shows up in drag as "Mother," that's when he is most being a man, showing up for his family, even though he's in drag head to toe. I told Zak (who's playing Albin) and Robert (who's playing Georges) that my biggest revelation when I started working on this show was that it's not a gay comedy. It's not a showbiz comedy. It's really not a even comedy, though it's awfully funny.

It's a drama about a middle-aged marriage and whether or not it can survive this crisis. That's the central action of the story. And I would submit, the real crisis isn't the hugely problematic engagement; it's a crisis of dignity and identity. Jean-Michel asks Georges to give up his (and Albin's) dignity and identity, and out of love, Georges agrees; but Albin saves both marriages because he refuses to give up his dignity, and he teaches both Jean-Michel and Anne an important lesson about being who you are.

And in the process, Albin becomes the role model for everybody else.


Just as La Cage shows us there isn't just one kind of family (and sometimes, the "Other" kind might just be healthier), it also shows us there isn't only one way to be a man, that "being a man" isn't always about being a man. Notice that throughout the show, the Cagelles are tough as fuckin' nails, even intimidating, even though they're always in women's clothes.

When we produced Anything Goes last season, everybody was astonished at what we revealed in the material, but all we did was take the text, the characters, the story, the themes, seriously; yes, even though it's a funny show. We're doing the same with La Cage, and though it's not my goal, I bet we get a lot of the same reactions for this one.

It's so much richer and realer and more complex than most people think. And so truthful and so funny. And unfortunately, also reeeeeally timely.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

To order tickets to La Cage aux Folles, click here.

La Cage aux Folles

"We are what we are,
And what we are
Is an illusion."

That's the first lyric in La Cage aux Folles, and though on the surface, it's talking about drag, it's saying way more than that. Just like the show it introduces. Those few lines encapsulate the entire story and all its themes.

Nobody realizes that the first time they hear it, but it's all there.

It introduces us to two ideas that will permeate every moment of the show. First, "we are what we are" -- in other words, we accept and embrace ourselves for who we are, without judgment or regret, without wanting to be someone or something else, and we're not changing. It's such a declarative statement. Particularly as sung by performers in drag, it's a statement of defiance and dignity. And that dignity will be greatly challenged throughout this story.

But the second phrase tells something just as important -- "what we are is an illusion." That's literally true of the men singing (St. Louis male actors playing French male performers playing female characters), but it's universally true for all of us. We all wear masks of various kinds in our lives; we all "perform" various roles, just like the characters in our story. This whole show is a deceptively serious story about identity and masks, reality and illusion.

Albin is living as a man, performing onstage as a woman, husband to Georges, "mother" to Jean-Michel, tragic diva to Jacob. When Albin shows up at the dinner party in drag, it's funny to us because we know he's about to cause all kinds of chaos, but we also register (maybe subconsciously) that this mask is "true." Albin is "disguised" as Jean-Michael's mother, but Albin is Jean-Michel's mother, in a very real way. So is it a deception?

Yes and no, both.

Like the whole show.

Like all of our lives.

When Albin takes his wig off at the end of "The Best of Times" in Act II, it's a plot device, but it's also such a compelling moment because the act of removing the wig after a drag performance is how Albin "tells the truth." He loves, even needs the mask, the safety of performance, but he never loses touch with reality. He can live successfully in both worlds.

As crazy as it is, Geroges and Albin's world has an equilibrium as our story begins. Yes, we witness Albin in full breakdown in the first dialogue scene, but we can tell from Georges' reactions that this is standard fare, part of their daily ritual. They both know the parts they play in this ritual, their lines, etc., and they both know by the end of the ritual, Zaza will go on.

This is a world of craziness and chaos, but it's also a world of family and ritual and commitment and a weird kind of stability.

People translate the title of La Cage aux Folles in various ways, but the one that seems most right to me is "The Mad Cage." The word folles is French for crazy or wild, and if you speak French, you'll notice that it's the feminine form of the word. So a literal translation might be "The Cage of Madwomen." But on top of that, folles is also French slang for effeminate gay men! When you know all that, the name of the show -- which is the name of the club above which the whole story takes place -- is a slyly subversive, multi-layered joke.

And what most people don't notice is that in the climax of the show, when all our characters are trapped in Georges and Albin's apartment, it becomes literally a "cage" of crazy people, une cage aux folles. The title tells us how our story will end.

But let's pause for a second, to note again that the slang word for effeminate gay men is a word that means crazy. That's pretty chilling. But also note that, just as gay Americans took back the word queer as a word of defiance and empowerment, so too Georges has taken back that word folles in an act of subtle, even comic, defiance.

Maybe they're crazy, but you'll pay to see them... so who's really crazy?

I first saw La Cage aux Folles in 1983 with my mom, on Broadway. It was wonderful, a big-scale, old-fashioned musical comedy that seemed gentle, but as timely as today's headlines. And even though I hadn't yet told my mom I was gay, and she didn't know any openly gay people, still at the end of the show she was deeply moved, and she said to me, "They really were in love, weren't they?"

The power of theatre.

But as much as I loved the show, it wasn't something I wanted to work on. Too big, too old-fashioned. Then I saw the 2010 revival on Broadway and all my preconceptions about this show were turned upside-down.

Ben Brantley's New York Times review of the revival cracked me up. He spent much of his review talking about how great the show is, except how bad the material is. It seems he couldn't imagine that maybe he didn't like the show in the past because other productions hadn't found everything that's there, and this latest production did. In Brantley's mind, it had to be that this production was good in spite of the material, not because of it. That was so funny to me.

I wrote a blog post about the revival the night I saw it, and I think I really got at what made it so different from the original...
I had been told that it was way darker (which we all know I love) and that in this version, the club in the show was much seedier. But that's not entirely true. What was so different may just be a product of changing expectations from the musical theatre audience. The biggest difference was the acting. So real, so honest, so truthful. They didn't play it as musical comedy; they approached the characters, relationships, etc. the way they would in a serious play. So though it's a funny story, there was no layer of irony distancing us from the emotions of these characters and events.

As much as I loved George Hearn as Albin, his was a musical-comedy Albin. But in 2010, Douglas Hodge gave us a powerful real, honest Albin, just a weary middle-aged man in a middle-aged marriage, who was also a very talented (though aging) nightclub performer. It was so much more emotional this way.
But the real highlight of the show was Douglas Hodge as Albin. His performance was nothing short of pure genius. Funny, honest, painful, subtle, joyful, and most of all, incredibly real. The kind of guy you'd love to have for a friend. Again, this was no musical comedy performance; this is an actor at the height of his power. Sometimes a naughty little boy, sometimes a weary middle-aged man, sometimes just a charismatic, lifelong entertainer who knows how to connect with an audience. His songs, "A Little More Mascara" and "I Am What I Am," both start out very quiet, very small, and that little detail made it so real, so emotional. He wasn't entertaining us with these songs; they were soliloquies from a man who isn't as sure or as strong as Albin usually is.

As I've said to a lot of people lately, the revival taught me that this show isn't really a musical comedy at heart -- the emotions and the stakes are too serious for that. There is genuine cruelty at the center of the story. No, this is a family drama, which happens to be populated by lots of colorful, larger-than-life, real people. After seeing the revival, I knew La Cage was a New Line show after all.
It's one of those productions that makes me see the material from an entirely different angle, much like the 1990s revivals of Carousel and The King and I. What I always thought of as a very sweet, fun musical comedy is now something much, much more. And what a joy it is to witness real artists of the theatre find that greater depth and subtlety in a show that isn't known for those things. It must've been there all along, hiding, waiting for actors and a director like this.

This is what I wrote about the revival's impact on me.
By the end of the cheering standing ovation, I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I could barely speak. I was supposed to meet a friend after the show, and I thought I wasn't going to be able to talk without bursting into tears. It was that powerful for me.

I can only hope that we bring that kind of honesty and resonance and power to this wonderful piece of theatre. I recently saw some footage of the original French (non-musical) play. It was very funny, but it could turn on a dime and break your fucking heart.

What could be more fun, or more satisfying to work on than that? Another wild and wonderful adventure begins! You have to see this one.

Long Live the Musical!

To order tickets to La Cage aux Folles, click here.