Dramatical Cats

Earlier this month, I published yet another book! I've been more than usually prolific as a writer since the Great Pandemic started. I mean, what else have I had to do? So my output may slow down, now that I'm actually making theatre again!

Although, full disclosure, I do have six or seven ideas for books I'd like to write, and four ideas for shows I'd like to write. I wish I could write faster.

The awesome Ted Chapin at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization recently said to me in an email, "You really know how to milk a topic, Scott!" I laughed out loud. It's so true. It's kind of a quest for me.

Yes, in addition to my eight collections of musical theatre analysis, which I consider the Soul of my writing life, I also wrote a history book, and then just in the last few years, I decided there were other kinds of things I wanted to write, books that I think of as Novelty Books.

But they're not just novelty books. They also explore the musical theatre today as an evolving art form, why it's important, how its processes works, how its artists work, how it started, how it has evolved, and where it may be heading. I really believe that my place in the world is to help people know and understand this amazing art form, the full depth and breadth and power of musical theatre. I hope all my books do that, even the sillier ones.

And there has also been a second motivation for me to write in recent years.

Musical theatre fans today, in the US and around the world, have a musical theatre "fan culture" like never before in the art form's history. The internet (and YouTube!) is the biggest reason, but there's also BroadwayCon, the Lights of Broadway trading cards and the Squigs caricatures (carrying on the Hirschfeld tradition), the amazing New York venue Feinstein's 54 Below, and the reopened Drama Book Shop (thank you, Lin and Tommy!) And there are more nonfiction books about our art form on the shelves than ever before. Looking at the future releases on Amazon is like walking into a candy store for me! 

And I want to contribute to that culture, a culture I wish had existed when I was in high school. I realized I want to create (informative) novelty books, so that actors (and others) in high school, college, community theatre, regional theatre, New York theatre, would all find something funny in them, and familiar, even meaningful.

My first book was the quiz book It's a Musical!: 400 Questions, and as with all my projects, I designed it to entertain, waste time, open up your perspective, challenge your preconceptions -- but mostly, just to be fun. I can only imagine how much geeky-artsy fun we would have had with this book in high school, on the bus ride from St. Louis to Muncie, Indiana, for the International Thespian Conferences.

Next up for me was a real dream project, a collection of short "weird fiction" called Night of the Living Show Tunes, combining my love of musicals and my love of horror fiction, and dedicated to "the Stephens, Sondheim and King, true giants of American storytelling."

But the pandemic was still raging, so I had more time to fill. Again, I tried to think what teenage fanboy Scott would've loved, and that led to an inspiration -- a book of Broadway Musical themed Christmas carols. I shit you not. These are traditional carols with entirely new lyrics about musicals; plus the traditional four-part vocal arrangements, though tweaked and "freshened up" a bit. I had so much fun writing these. The one title that still makes me giggle is "Away in a Mame Tour." My hope was to contribute in a fun and enlightening way to this wonderful, evolving culture around musical theatre fandom. It's pumping so much energy into the art form.

So my next book was the most non-threatening, non-pretentious, easily accessible treatment I could muster -- an overview of the musical theatre, the art form, as a whole, written for "civilians." It's called The ABCs of Broadway Musicals: A Civilian's Guide, a small format, fairly short book, a kind of one-stop shop for a surprisingly thorough but easy-to-digest crash course. It can be read straight through or in little pieces. (Don't tell anybody, but there are going to be more volumes of my ABCs books coming!)

Every time I start on a new project, I think about the tweens and teens just discovering musicals; the hardcore high school drama kids; the serious college theatre majors; the crazy people like me who literally give their lives over to this beautiful art form; and the people who sit in our audiences show after show -- I think about what these people would enjoy, what might surprise and delight them, and what might also surreptitiously educate them, spoonful-of-sugar-like.

It was with all that in mind that I started off on this latest project, Theatre Cats: The Old Producer's Book of Dramatical Cats, again with illustrations by my actor buddy Zak Farmer (who also illustrated our Dr. Seuss style Shellie Shelby Shares the Spotlight). I've written a bunch of stage musicals, but I had never written a collection of poems before. And it was hard! And it was fun!

Artists often say that they make the best art under the most limitations. That sort of describes the entire history of New Line Theatre, doesn't it?

When director Michael Mayer decided to adapt American Idiot for the stage, he set himself some tough limitations. He chose to keep the songs in the exact same order as the album (though with a couple songs from Green Day's next album interpolated), and he didn't change any lyrics. He knew that limits breed creativity. I have found this to be true repeatedly throughout my artistic life.

I saw the truth of it when I was forcing myself to follow the rules, form, structure, etc. of W.S. Gilbert, in writing The Zombies of Penzance and Bloody King Oedipus!, and forcing myself to conform to Edgar Allen Poe's rules when I wrote the Poe-esque poem, "Nothing More," for my horror collection. I've discovered the joys of writing "light verse" and the never-ending fun of really playing with language!

When I set out to write Theatre Cats, I likewise forced myself to follow T.S. Eliot's form, structure, rhymes, interior rhymes, all of it, even though the text is entirely new and largely unrelated to the original poems. But those practical limitations helped enormously; I had to find exactly the right words, to say something meaningful but funny, and to rhyme. Just like I got better at the New York Times crossword puzzles the more I did them; I've also been getting better and better at "light verse" after working on these projects -- and after closely studying Hamilton's astonishing use of language and rhyme, for my book Hamilton and the New Revolution

Zak and I also hope that Theatre Cats will be a stealth educational tool. Several of the poems are cautionary tales, designed to describe how not to act in the theatre, like "Mermananiac the Screlty Cat," "Little Chernobyloff the Nuclear Cat," "Random Brando the Method Cat," "F'rocious Olivier the Projecting Cat," and "Laffaminnit the Comedian Cat." Some of the poems are about unsung heroes, like "La Maestra the Music Director Cat," "Pocketwatch the Backstage Cat," and "Chris the Character Cat." And there are a couple direct tributes to my heroes -- Hal Prince, as "Calico Prince the Director Cat," and musical theatre fans, as "Miss Teppercat the Fangirl Cat." Several of the poems reveal some details of backstage life, but the last poem, "The Directing of Cats," is the only poem devoted entirely to the work, the artists, and the respect they deserve. I really love that last one.

Just as T.S. Eliot disguised human behavior as cat behavior, Zak and I have done the same with behavior in the theatre, like I wrote on the back cover, "the good, the bad, and the finicky." If you love cats or musicals, you'll enjoy these poems. If you love both cats and musicals, this book will delight you. Take it from the artsy fanboy with a cat named Hamilton and a former cat named Pal Joey.

Yes, I'm that obsessed. No point in trying to hide it, right?

So think about picking up a copy of Theatre Cats, one for you, and one for every theatre friend you have. And maybe also The ABCs of Broadway Musicals too. And one for your parents. 

I've always thought of the musical theatre as my church. And now I realize that this exploding fan community is part of that church as well. They are its life. It's not theatre without an audience. And now, that audience is no longer just in New York; it's all over the country and all over the world. Musical theatre is growing and evolving like never before in this new Golden Age for the art form.

I want to contribute to that in any small way I can.

We start rehearsals again in January for New Line Theatre's Head Over Heels. I. Can. Not. Wait.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. You can check out all my books here.

Let Me Tell You a Story About Alvin

The Story of My Life has been a genuine pleasure to work on, for several reasons. First, it's just great to work on smart, interesting, original shows like this. We New Liners are very lucky because we get to do that all the time. Second, the response from the audience and critics has been so wonderful. People are really moved by it. They love the characters, the songs, the whole premise of the show. Third, my favorite thing in the world is introducing musical theatre lovers to shows they don't know. Again, we New Liners get to do that a lot.

Despite the unfortunately widespread belief that audiences only like the familiar, we know the truth, that audiences like what's good. Whether or not they've heard of it before.

A fourth reason we love this show so much is that we find new treasure in it every night. Just last night, our sixth performance, I realized the short musical fragments at the end of the show are quoting the "Saying Goodbye" songs. A few nights ago, I realized that writer's block is keeping Tom from getting where he needs to get emotionally, etc., and the bookstore The Writer's Block is a big part of what keeps Alvin from the same. I also noticed that Tom is constantly stealing Alvin's words and passing them off as his own.

Since we first started work on the show, our actors Jeff and Chris, and I knew that this was a deep, nuanced, subtle, complex piece of theatre. And the more we live with it, the deeper we can see into it. And one of the things that has become so clear to us is that this Story about Storytelling is also about the nature of memory and narrative -- or in other words, our perception of reality.

The first level of reality is our Real World -- Jeff, Chris, Rob's set, Ken's lighting, me and my keyboard, in our blackbox theatre. No one in our audience ever forgets that they are in a theatre in St. Louis watching actors tell a story.

But the audience also accepts a second level of reality, the reality of the show, the world in which Tom and Alvin live. And they accept that this reality operates differently -- we jump around in time, and we ask the audience to imagine the bookstore, the bridge, the funeral chapel, the restaurant. They accept all this because the show establishes immediately that we're inside Tom's head, so the audience agrees to accept unusual rules about storytelling here. For instance, Alvin isn't the real Alvin (who also isn't real); he's the Alvin in Tom's head, Tom's memory/construction of Alvin, and the audience understands that very early on.

But then there's another level of reality when we enter into the stories of their past relationship. Tom becomes Young Tom and Alvin becomes Young Alvin. And again, the audience accepts it because they've been prepared for it. 

Often in the flashbacks, Tom steps out of the past to share a bit of information with us, and in doing that, acknowledges that first level of reality, the presence of the audience in the theatre. When Tom steps out of the story to talk to us, he's straddling several layers of reality at once -- his childhood past, his adult present, his role as a fictional character in a musical and his role as writer/narrator.

And if you want to go even deeper -- you might want a smoke a bowl before reading this -- one of the flashback stories that make up The Story of My Life is called "A Neat Career," about how Tom wrote a short story for his college application. And within "A Neat Career," Tom reads/narrates/performs the story his younger self wrote, "The Butterfly," which contains it's own deeper level of reality, in which a butterfly and a river can have a life-changing conversation about physics.

And all of this exists inside what is essentially a lecture-demonstration about storytelling, skillfully disguised as an entertaining, emotional journey through a lifelong friendship. As we go on Tom's journey with him, we're also learning how storytelling works, its creation, its inspiration, its difficulty, its complexity, its impact.

And kind of over on the side of this crazy reality flowchart, there's one other level of reality -- the one inside It's a Wonderful Life -- which permeates the show. Interestingly, our two fictional characters are both linked to great works of fiction. Tom is connected to Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain's preface about storytelling. Alvin is connected to director Frank Capra's iconic film It's a Wonderful Life. At the end of the show, Tom refers to their story as "mixed with Capra and Twain." Tom is Twain, shrewdly ironic; and Alvin is Capra, hopeful and sentimental.

The last line of the show ties a bow on the intricate construction of the script and score. Tom says to the folks at Alvin's funeral -- and to us -- "Let me tell you a story about Alvin." And lights fade to black over one final chord.

And at that moment the audience realizes, he just did that for the last ninety minutes! The Story of My Life has become the thing Tom has been seeking, an understanding and summing up of who Alvin is, of what a friendship means. This musical is the eulogy, and when the musical is done, the eulogy will be done. Those relentless phrases "Write what you know, Tom" and "This is it, Tom" change meaning and context over and over, but ultimately, this show is the proof that those phrases are right -- Tom has told us only what he knows, after all, but we've gotten an incredibly full picture of Alvin and Tom both.

What Tom already knows is enough. Write what you know, Tom.

When "This Is It" finally becomes its own full song near the end, it's because Tom is finally approaching understanding. Now the phrase means two things at once -- both that there is no more to find here, but also that the "story" Tom has fashioned for us is the right one. When Alvin asks Tom if he's finished the eulogy, Tom says he hasn't -- because the show is that eulogy, and it's not yet finished.

Tom has to learn finally that a bunch of stories -- without a neat, tidy, dramatic summing up -- is enough. And since we're talking about levels of reality, let's take note of this double lesson, first that a person's life can't be summed up by a single statement, that a life is more like a mosaic than a straight line, that a bunch of stories is enough. And also that a musical doesn't have to have a summing-up at the end either, that this kind of mosaic of snapshots is also satisfying storytelling, that there isn't only way to tell a story.

In this case, our story is more like a jigsaw puzzle than a long straight stretch of highway. Joseph Campbell teaches us that it's not about the destination, or the answer; it's about the journey. Campbell also teaches us that humans need storytelling.

The real magic from songwriter Neil Bartram and bookwriter Brian Hill is that despite the substantial, interlocking complexity of The Story of My Life, and all its themes and ideas, the audience never gets lost. They are entertained throughout, completely engaged in these two characters, and they walk out deeply moved every night. It may not be a "commercial" show, but it's brilliant theatre.

We close this weekend! Come join us!

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here for Tickets!

Every Time a Bells Rings...

I've been working on The Story of My Life for about six weeks, and I've been listening to the cast recording, now and then, for about ten years. And yet, every night I watch our production, I see and understand something new. Driving home in my car after performances, I'm often hit with a revelation about something in the show that had just then coalesced in my head.

Jeff (who's playing Tom) and Chris (who's playing Alvin) have these surprising revelations as well. Just a few days before opening, Jeff noticed something so small, yet so meaningful. When Alvin is coming to the Big City to see Tom, Tom makes all the travel arrangements -- including booking a hotel for Alvin. In other words, Tom doesn't want Alvin, his lifelong best friend, staying with him in his home, during Alvin's first ever trip outside his small town.

This morning, a random thought occurred to me. When we did Head Over Heels, I looked up the origins of the characters' names, and found some really wonderful stuff. The same thing happened with Next to Normal, and those character names. So this morning, I thought why not look up these names too? Sure enough, like the other shows, these names are far too meaningful to be accidental.

Alvin means old or wise friend. The name originated in the Middle Ages, adapted from Old English family names. Thomas is an Aramaic name from the Middle Ages, meaning twins. And of course, the most famous Thomas is the apostle, "Doubting Thomas," who refused to believe in the resurrection till he could see Jesus with his own eyes. There's no way this wasn't on purpose. Tom's role throughout the first part of the story is that of skeptic. He questions everything wondrous that Alvin believes in. Tom soon learns that he and Alvin just aren't on the same path -- their roads diverge irreversibly in the song tellingly called "Normal."

No, Tom and Alvin aren't twins. But the whole show takes place inside Tom's head. So Tom and the Alvin inside Tom's head, maybe they are closer to being twins.

Alvin's not exactly a ghost. We're not led to believe there's anything supernatural going on here. He is Tom's mental construction of Alvin, his memories of him, his impression of him (exactly like Dot in Act II of Sunday in the Park with George). And that special role Alvin has in our story gives him a lot of freedom and a lot of power. (In other words, it gives Tom a lot of power.) And it also gives Alvin a kind of Zen detachment, when he's not inside the flashbacks.

That also sets up the parallel to Clarence the Angel in It's a Wonderful Life, who is arguably also inside George Bailey's head. And Alvin certainly takes the role of Clarence in Tom's life and now in his head. But significantly, inside his own story, Alvin isn't a Clarence figure, the Wise Wizard; he's George Bailey, but without an angel. For this George Bailey, there is no Clarence.

I love the way Neil Bartram and Brian Hill constructed this show. There are so many connections within the show, and to iconic cultural touchstones outside the show, but all of those connections are complicated, backwards, in opposition.

Alvin can't give Tom the answers he wants about what happened. Why? Because Tom wasn't there, and this Alvin is inside Tom's head; he's Alvin-Tom. He only knows what Tom knows. At the same time, Bartram and Hill are slyly telling us that storytelling isn't always about Answers, especially when those answers are not simple; it's about exploration. Storytelling helps us get through our lives, but storytelling doesn't do the work for us; it's just a roadmap. More than anything storytelling is about connection and communion.

Tom may not get the answers he seeks, but instead he learns several important lessons that he needs to understand by the end of the story -- because those lessons will bring him redemption. Alvin spends the show (and their lives?) steering Tom toward the lessons he needs, but Tom often doesn't learn because he's walled himself off. Significantly, Tom doesn't find what he's looking for until he stops looking for it ("I'm through with stories.")

Tom finally understands that Alvin's death isn't what defines him; his Life is, the Joy he found in the tiny moments (the Butterfly Effect moments) of everyday life, which he then passed on to the world, even when the world wasn't interested. Tom learns that no single big statement can define a life; only the tiny individual incidents. That's why Tom's chosen quote about God's Great Library is a mistake.

When Alvin berates Tom for merely choosing a famous quote for Alvin's father's eulogy, after Alvin had asked professional, award-winning writer Tom to write the eulogy. Tom lashes back by telling Alvin that his father's life of living in a small town selling books isn't exactly the stuff of epic poetry. Of course that stings Alvin -- that's now Alvin's life too. But Tom's right, isn't he?

A small town bookseller isn't worth epic and grand language -- he's worth stories. Gordon Kelby wasn't famous or overly consequential. But he was a butterfly. Over his life as a bookseller, how many thousands of books did he deliver into the hands of readers, at least some of whose lives were forever changed.

It's only in the last line of the show that we really understand -- this show we've just watched, The Story of My Life, is the eulogy Tom has been trying to write about Alvin. Early in the show, Alvin says to Tom:
That's all a eulogy is, Tom. You tell a bunch of stories, save the tear-jerker for the end, and there you have it. My eulogy. The story of my life.

This show is the thing it's about. Like Passing Strange and Chicago. And in one last brilliant twist, we finally register the full meaning of the title, The Story of MY Life. Tom set out to write Alvin's story but wrote his own instead. On the surface, the show is the story of Alvin's life, and underneath, in the shadows, it's the story of Tom's life. And in many respects, it's the story of each of our lives.

And it's a beautiful, smart, funny, amazing piece of musical theatre. We run till Oct. 23.

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here for Tickets!

It's Life.

When I write Director's Notes for the program, for each of our shows, I always try to imagine what about this particular show might be the most challenging for the audience to understand or key into. We often do very smart, unconventional, complex shows that demand a lot from our audience.

Then again, Life itself is quite often challenging and complex and demands a lot from us. Art reflects Life,, right?

We often do very confrontational shows, sometimes very vulgar or intentionally offensive shows (like Bukowsical and Jerry Springer the Opera). So I do my best to think about what might be hard for the audience to accept or understand, what might be confusing about the show's concept or style.

In a few cases, it's about what preconceived notions about a famous show our audience will have to get past. Many people have huge misconceptions about Rocky Horror, Grease, Anything Goes, Jesus Christ Superstar, and other "mainstream" shows that have been dumbed down and robbed of their original sting over the years. So sometimes I have to ask our audience to consciously let go of their preconceptions.

When I thought about what to write in my Director's Notes for The Story of My Life, there were several unusual elements I thought to write about. But I concluded the most important thing to help audiences with was the idea that the entire show takes place inside Tom's head. As you'll see from my notes, that's not a radical idea for a musical, but it is unusual.

So here's what I wrote....

Welcome to Tom Weaver’s head. Tom is a writer, and the action of The Story of My Life takes place entirely inside his head. We meet his best friend Alvin, but since we’re in Tom’s head, this is Tom’s conception of Alvin, his impression of his best friend, more than the real thing.

You’d be surprised how many musicals take place inside the hero’s head – Company, Pippin, A Strange Loop, most of A New Brain, much of Kiss of the Spider Woman, much of Lady in the Dark, the title song of Jesus Christ Superstar, almost all the songs in High Fidelity. You’d probably be less surprised at how much that changes the story, when the hero’s subconscious is making the storytelling rules, instead of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

With The Story of My Life, Tom starts out trying to tell Alvin’s story, but by the end of the show, we see that it’s so much more complicated than that. Instead of laying out the story of their lifelong friendship in chronological order, this story is more like stream-of-consciousness. Rather than taking us down a direct narrative path, the structure of the show – like the structure of Tom’s brain – is more like a jigsaw puzzle. Tom and Alvin (who’s really Tom, right?) offer up one puzzle piece at a time, and when the last pieces are put in place, we see the full picture.

And the show’s title becomes more meaningful.

This is an adult musical. It’s not R-rated, like New Line’s Bukowsical, Jerry Springer the Opera, I Love My Wife, American Idiot, or bare. This is a story about being an adult, about the adult world, about the endless complexities and maddening nuances of adult human relationships, and the messy, nagging question marks that sometimes remain.

This is a story about stories, the foundation of all human communication, what they are, where they come from, what we do with them, why we need them, and how they can define a life. This is also a story about the Butterfly Effect, the idea that a tiny, seemingly trivial change can create a chain of events that results in massive consequences.

In terms of narrative structure, that Butterfly Effect is essentially what some writers call the Obligatory Moment, that moment toward which everything before it leads; and from which everything after it results. Think of it as a “hinge” moment that divides the story into Before and After. (Like in West Side Story when Tony and Maria see each other at the dance; or in Rocky Horror when Brad and Janet decide to walk back to that castle.) Take out that Obligatory Moment and there’s no story.

You’ll see that moment just a couple scenes into The Story of My Life, and with it, I think you’ll recognize the Butterfly Effect in your own life, that one special teacher who said that one inspiring thing, or that consequential choice you once made. It’s a universal human truth. We all have Obligatory Moments in our lives. Which is why this makes such a great story and why we connect to it so powerfully.

I hope my notes will make seeing the show a slightly more fulfilling, meaningful, powerful experience for folks.

The Story of My Life is a very dense musical, overflowing with imagery, subtext, connections and references, textual and musical themes, subtle foreshadowing. There's a lot going on.

Then again, human lives are pretty dense, too.

And as much treasure as we've discovered as we've worked on this amazing show, no one in our audience will catch it all in one viewing. So I want to do what I can to help prepare our audience to see all the richness and complexity in this beautifully crafted musical.

We learned long ago that our audiences can handle anything we throw at them, but they're always grateful for a little head start.

Come join us for this extraordinary experience. It's exactly the tonic we need for these crazy, disorienting times. We run till Oct. 23.

Long Live the Musical!

I'm a Butterfly

One of the central themes of The Story of My Life is The Butterfly Effect, the idea that a tiny, seemingly trivial act can have profound implications. (You know, like refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic. But I digress.) The centerpiece of this show is a song called "The Butterfly," in which a butterfly learns about the Butterfly Effect.

But what we've realized while working on this incredibly rich, layered, complex show is that there are examples of the Butterfly Effect everywhere in our story. And by the end of the show, the audience realizes that the Butterfly Effect is everywhere in their lives as well. We all have Butterfly moments. We just rarely notice them.

I can think of so many in my own life. As one just example of many, when I turned 21, my mom wrote to a bunch of stage and film celebrities, asking them to send me birthday wishes. I ended up getting more than forty cards, letters, etc. It was wonderful. But the first thing that came was a letter from actors Lucie Arnaz and Larry Luckinbill. Lucie wrote a lovely letter and Larry wrote the P.S.
Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it.

That one P.S. changed my life. It changed the way I thought about theatre, about musicals, about what I wanted to do as a theatre writer and director. That one P.S. became the guiding principle for New Line Theatre. Without that one P.S., I honestly don't know if I would have started New Line.

I also think back to my first Thespian conference, sophomore year in high school. I sat down on the bus headed for Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and sitting behind me was Dave Englehart, from an other high school, who would become my very best friend for years. Just because we happened to sit in those two seats.

It's a universal truth, a universal experience. And in the show, it's a lesson that Tom has to learn

Lifelong friends Alvin and Tom first meet in the school cafeteria in first grade, because their teacher Mrs. Remington introduced them. We can imagine, from her perspective, that these were just two "misfit" boys who might find something in common. Surely Mrs. Remington didn't image she was responsible for launching a lifelong friendship.

The Butterfly never knows what powerful effects it has. It just knows that it needs to flap its wings.

Later in Tom and Alvin's friendship, at age eleven, comes another seminal Butterfly moment. Alvin and Tom go down into Alvin's father's bookstore to find a birthday present for Tom. Interestingly, in this scene, Alvin believes the bookstore has mystical powers, and Tom does not. But Alvin's right, isn't he? If not the store itself, surely its contents -- books, stories -- have mystical powers. And sure enough, the book Alvin chooses does change Tom's life.

If that's not mystical, what is?

And how ironic that this bookstore, that birthed Tom's writing career, is called The Writer's Block -- and writer's block plagues Tom as we meet him, mid-career, though as symptom or cause, we don't know. And in both cases, Alvin is at the center of it all.

There so many Butterfly moments in The Story of My Life. (I'll be vague here, so as not to spill any big spoilers.) There's the discovery of the idea of eulogies, the theft of the robe, Tom's cancellation of the trip, the dinner with Ann, all of them tiny moments, often just a word or two, that change everything.

In fact, maybe the very act of sitting down to write Alvin's eulogy -- the framing device for the whole show -- is a Butterfly moment.

It's easy to see Alvin as the metaphorical Butterfly, creating changes all around him, yet ironically never really changing himself. But we can also see Tom as a Butterfly, but more like an evil butterfly. He also does several things that seem small but have massive implications. But Tom's Butterfly Effects are all negative, destructive, while Alvin's Butterfly Effects are positive. The two friends are Butterfly yin and yang.

And really, isn't the show itself, isn't The Story of My Life, an example of the Butterfly Effect? A little two-actor musical (and for this production, just me on keyboard) that reaches so many people, causing them to remember and maybe even reconnect with a lost friend, discover Butterfly moments in their own lives, understand the Butterfly moments they create in others' lives.

When our audiences walk out after the show each night, how many of them look up old friends? How many think about becoming a writer? How many are a little different having experienced our story?

The combination of Neil Bartram's music and lyrics, and Brian Hill's script, the show itself, is a butterfly. Our production of the show is a butterfly. Each of our performances is a butterfly. Storytelling itself is a butterfly.

But as the show reminds us, Butterfly Effects can be good or bad. And maybe after experiencing The Story of My Life, our audiences will be a little more careful about how carelessly we wield that awesome power. Maybe we'll all be less apt to toss off putdowns or insults, now that we're aware how consequential those tiny moments can be.

Some folks might think this is a weird time to be doing a show about writing a eulogy, after the last year and a half of relentless sickness and death. But on the contrary, right now is when we need Alvin and Tom the most. Right now, in these wild, chaotic, disorienting, and fiercely divided times, we need the twin themes of this show. First, that a person is not defined by how they died, but by how they lived; and second, that we have to recognize the fearsome power we each have to inspire, to lift up, but also to shatter.

As I've written many times, storytelling is never about escape. People don't go to the theatre or the movies or read a book or watch TV in order to escape; they do it to connect. Humans tell stories to make sense of their lives and the world around them. If ever our world needed sense-making, it's now.

The Story of My Life is about healing, after all -- and passing that healing on. At no other time in my life has that been more important than right now.

Thank you, Neil and Brian, and thank you, St. Louis audiences. It's so nice to be back in the theatre, sharing something genuinely worthwhile, telling stories again. It's what we do. Come see this wonderful show. We run till Oct. 23.

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here for Tickets!

Angels in the Snow

The Story of My Life is about Tom's quest for The Answer -- though arguably, Tom is asking the wrong question. In many ways, this is a Hero Myth story, but an entirely interior one, taking place entirely inside Tom's head. We know, from the beginning of the show, that Alvin is dead, and Tom is trying to write his eulogy.

But each of those two facts carry with them powerful meaning, subtext, pain, and serious symbolic heft. And as Tom works through all he has to work through, the images and phrases in his head take on ever-changing meanings as he goes on this interior journey.

Throughout the show, the phrase, "Write what you know," comes up over and over, sometimes as encouragement from Alvin; sometimes as a way to say, "acknowledge that there are things you don't know;" sometimes it's a push to confront what Tom knows; sometimes it's about "knowing" concrete details versus "knowing" greater truths. And ultimately, "write what you know," comes to really mean, "Don't try to write about what you don't know."

When Alvin demands that Tom acknowledge his friend's contributions to his stories, Tom gets overly defensive at the suggestion -- but it's not really Alvin demanding this, after all; it's the Alvin in Tom's head, Tom's idea of Alvin. So, it's Tom suggesting this. Tom is chastising himself for refusing to acknowledge his Best Friend and Muse -- and not just Alvin's contribution to his stories, but the contribution of everything around him, all his experiences, all the people, all his Butterfly moments.

The first story Tom writes is called "The Butterfly," about the Butterfly Effect in everyday life. Significantly, Alvin is a human Butterfly Effect in Tom's life, though Tom doesn't know that yet (at least consciously) when he writes his story. Alvin is even the Butterfly Effect in Tom's head! Alvin is the butterfly. Alvin is Tom's first story. Alvin also gave Tom his first book -- his first story -- Tom Sawyer. In Tom's head, Alvin and storytelling are inextricably linked.

Throughout the show, the show's creators, Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, use two iconic works of American storytelling to add richness to the story and to bond the audience to these characters in these shared cultural experiences. Tom Sawyer becomes Tom's doorway into the magical world of storytelling and storytellers.

It's a Wonderful Life becomes almost a parallel roadmap for our story, with strong parallels that the characters themselves recognize. In Tom's head, Alvin becomes George Bailey, the protagonist of It's a Wonderful Life, but it's not a good fit. The parallels aren't as clean as Tom would like. And as Alvin's story diverges from It's a Wonderful Life, the classic film becomes a meaningful storytelling counterpoint. As the two stories end, they are nearly opposites. Alvin's life isn't a movie; it's much more complicated than that.

Tom Weaver is cousin to Pippin, both of them on a quest, without really knowing what they're questing for. Pippin thinks he's searching for fulfillment, but he ultimately realizes that he was searching for the wrong thing; what he needed was connection, which is what he gets from Catherine and Theo. Grandma Berthe was right along -- it was about finding and enjoying the "Simple Joys."

Likewise, Tom is trying to tell the story of Alvin's life, but Tom thinks that means searching for the answer to why Alvin ended his life -- and what it had to do with Tom. Ultimately, Tom discovers he was searching for the wrong story. Alvin's death isn't what defines him; his life, his joy is what defines him. Only when Tom gets that, can he finally write the story -- and find the answers, the redemption -- he seeks.

The "Write what you know" motif, weaving throughout the entire show, represents Tom's futile attempts to write Alvin's story so that he can deliver Alvin's eulogy. And composer Neil Bartram has set that phrase to a melody that is an upside-down version of the famous dies irae theme, from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, music which composers have been quoting for hundreds of years. Sondheim used it to accompany, "Swing your razor high, Sweeney!" Sondheim also turned it upside-down for the accompaniment of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Tom is literally dealing with death (with the dies irae) in the wrong way, upside-down!

Bartram has constructed a very intricate architecture for this score. It's built on a collection of leitmotifs, short musical ideas connected to a specific character or idea. The "Write what you know" motif is only one of many. There's a staccato instrumental "writing" motif that accompanies Tom's torturous attempts to break through his writer's block; the motif always ends on an ugly dissonance, the musical equivalent of Tom's block. Musical quotes pop up throughout the score, as a storytelling motif.

The "Saying Goodbye" songs are four numbers that chart the slow disintegration of Tom and Alvin's friendship. In "The First Time That We Said Goodbye" (called "Saying Goodbye, Part 1" in the score), Tom leaves for college -- it's the moment their paths diverge forever.

In "The Next Time That We Said Goodbye" ("Part 2"), Tom has come home from college with his girlfriend Ann, and Alvin isn't happy. In the third piece, also "The Next Time," the song is now intercut with Alvin's "This is it, Tom." This time, saying goodbye isn't about someone leaving; it's about the end of the friendship. The fourth version, now "The Last Time," completely deconstructs itself, as Tom has a musical nervous breakdown, this time frantically intercut with music and dialogue from throughout the whole show -- all those "thousands of stories" in Tom's head attack. This is the last time because Alvin is dead.

In the final moments of this Story of Stories, Tom has found what he needed inside himself, as many Heroes do, and both Tom and Alvin know that this Zen-ghost-Alvin has fulfilled his purpose; he can rest in peace now. This really is the last goodbye (not to mention the end of the show). Tom has found redemption, peace, enlightenment -- and his writer's block has been cured! The show's joyful, redemptive finale, "Angels in the Snow," ends, and segues into a familiar, though probably subliminal, musical phrase; it's the intro music to the "Saying Goodbye" songs. It's the last music we hear in the show. It's the show's goodbye to us.

In The Story of My Life, the music is a fully equal storytelling element here, so expressive, so meaningful, so narrative.

So often, the music turns ugly in Tom's anger (at Alvin and at himself) and his frustration in not being to tell stories, which is supposed to be his thing. And the music often becomes Tom's writing process, stopping and starting, sputtering, just as Tom's words do.

But fragments of music aren't the only things swirling around in Tom's head. There are also fragments of scenes, some that we see more than once, or in different forms. There's one key scene -- one story -- about writing Alvin's father's eulogy, that is so painful to Tom, so close to the bone, that he abandons it several times before he can finally finish the scene. And it's in finishing that painful scene that Tom finds Alvin's magic.

The path to enlightenment is rarely easy or painless. Or direct.

The big, central metaphor of the whole show is Snow Angels. They represent everything joyful and childlike about Alvin, but they're also loaded with other meaning, about creation, about the evanescent nature of art, about symbols and ritual. Traditionally, snow and whiteness are symbols of death, the Big Chill. And since Alvin is already dead when our story beings, he is the "angel" who guides Tom back onto his right path. But snow angels are temporary, elusive. As Tom says, "Turn your back and there they go."

Just like live theatre.

Beyond the act of making the snow angels, the story that Tom is (unsuccessfully) trying to write about making those snow angels is the spine of the show. In Tom's implacable frustration over his writer's block, the "Snow Angels" story relates back to the eulogy for Alvin's father that Tom is also apparently unable to write. Even though Tom is a professional, award-winning writer, these two stories stifle him because both stories inevitably lead him to back his unresolved, contradictory feelings about Alvin.

For the first part of the show, Tom repeatedly tries to start this story ("Every Christmas Eve, we'd make angels in the snow..."). But he can't get past the first sentence. He can't even get this autobiographical story started. Later in the show, in the songs "Nothing There" and "Saying Goodbye #4," Tom painfully, fitfully continues working on his story, one torturous sentence at a time, and essentially he has a breakdown.

Notice the line on which Tom gets stuck in the "Snow Angels" story -- "And as the sun disappeared..." He can't get past this phrase. Why? Maybe because his subconscious equates the sun disappearing with Alvin, arguably Tom's muse, being essentially removed from Tom's life. Tom can't get past that line because he is constantly reminded -- by Alvin's annual Christmas cards, among other things -- of the "sun" that he "disappeared" from his life.

This device is strong textually, but also musically. The musical phrase that accompanies this text ("And as the sun disappeared") ends on a dissonant ,"ugly" note, which sounds wrong -- but only as long as Tom can 't finish it. And to underline its wrongness even more, Bartram set this plain, F major melody over a Bb bass note, forcing this plain melody into a much more complex tonality, changing a simple major chord into a dissonant, harmonically ambiguous Bb9+2+6 chord -- Tom is musically "lost" -- and still the last note sounds wrong.

Finally at the end of the show, we hear that same phrase and its "wrong" note in their proper harmonic context and the phrase is beautiful. Tom is in a better place now, both emotionally and musically. In its correct musical context, that note isn't wrong; it just moves us into a new key temporarily. But without that chord underneath, it sounds ugly, dissonant.

When Tom finally breaks through his block, and this melody continues forward (with new text now), that "wrong" note sounds inevitable. In its full and proper harmonic context, this melody starts on the root chord of the key (B major in "Angels in the Snow," which is already a half-step up from the previous fragments in Bb). And as the melody gets to that "wrong" note (on -peared), the chord under it moves us out of the key of B major. This previously missing pivot chord works as a III7 chord in B Major, and as a V7 chord in C# major. Now in this new temporary key of C#, the story goes on, "There was magic alive in the air," with the word magic leading us into this new key. The music then returns to B major under "for the angels we made." The music, the story, and Tom are all Back Home.

We can now hear in the music the magic of creating art, the magic of both the creation of snow angels and the creation of Tom's story.

Under the last word of this short section ("there") the music moves into a new key again, as Alvin says, "Hm, I like this one." Tom is moving forward, no longer stuck in one key, no longer trapped in his guilt and shame. And the story continues until we get to that powerful, previously torturous phrase, "And as the sun disappeared..." Now with the proper music under it, Tom can get past his block. He's at last "in tune" with his story -- and his past -- and with Alvin, his muse and his angel. At last Tom can see the inherent magic in his story, in the snow, in the setting sun, in the angels they made, in his friendship with Alvin. He can even see their angels "dance" in his memory, as the shadows advance.

And finally Tom comes to the wisdom he needed, some of the childlike joy and special sight of Alvin:
Every Christmas Eve, we'd make angels in the snow
And every year, we watch them disappear.
But I know that they'll return,
And though the years may come and go,
When I need to have them with me, they'll be here.

Tom finally realizes the answer he seeks is in rediscovering the joy and wonder of the way Alvin -- and Tom, once -- saw the world. It's about finding joy in simple things. Almost every story in the show is about Alvin finding magic in everyday things. Tom shares that ability when he's a kid, but in learning to conform and fit in, as they move into high school, Tom loses that ability. Only when he finds it again, can he finally write "Snow Angels," about simple everyday magic. And now, the changing light of the sun setting makes the angels dance. The phrase that so bedeviled him now makes magic.

Tom finally understands that the real magic is in our memories and the stories we tell, which brings those memories -- and people -- back to life for a while.

Tom has the understanding he needs now. Sure, his snow angel Alvin has "disappeared," but when he  needs to have Alvin with him, he'll be there -- in Tom's stories, in Tom's memories. He'll always be Tom's angel, his Clarence.

Which brings us back to It's a Wonderful Life... and allows Tom to deliver Alvin's eulogy, to make peace with his past, to see again the value and the magic in their relationship, the magic that we've just spent ninety minutes exploring.

Because, as Tom says at one point in the show, "It's life." Yes it is. A little later, Alvin reminds Tom that life doesn't work the same as stories do, that stories are only tiny, selective slices of life, that real life leaves questions unanswered, unresolved, unrelenting, "and isn't that refreshing?" Yes it is. Or as another musical bluntly and honestly explains it, "Life is random and unfair; life is pandemonium." And isn't that refreshing?

I can't wait to share this beautiful, honest musical with all of you! We open this week!

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here for Tickets!

The Story of My Life

We never stop discovering hidden treasures in The Story of My Life, the Broadway musical that New Line opens in a couple weeks at the Marcelle Theater in Grand Center. We ran the whole show for the first time last night, and for the first time on the set, and it went really well! Putting all the pieces together, even in a slightly rough form, reveals so much about this wonderful, intricately constructed, richly detailed musical!

We originally (and over-optimistically) planned to do Something Rotten this fall, but the pandemic scuttled those plans. Then we decided to do Songs for a New World in that slot; but alas, that was not to be either, owing largely to pandemic fears. So we finally settled on a musical that has been on my To-Do list for about ten years, Neil Bartram and Brian Hill's The Story of My Life. Just two actors, and for our production, just one musician (me) on keyboard. It's weirdly perfect for this moment -- so physically minimalist and yet so incredibly emotional and complex.

Artists and scholars often have trouble defining the "concept musical." The definition I've settled on, after all these years, is that a concept musical is a show in which the central metaphor or storytelling form (the concept) is more important, or at least as important, as the content of the narrative. So, obvious examples include Cabaret, Hair, Company, Godspell, Pippin, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Chicago, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Urinetown, A New Brain, and more recently, Spelling Bee, The Bomb-itty of Errors, Head Over Heels, Bukowsical, Jerry Springer the Opera, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, [title of show], The Great Comet, Hadestown, The Scottsboro Boys, A Strange Loop, Hamilton, and so many more.

...and The Story of My Life, a musical which operates entirely inside the mind of one character, Tom, and pieces together its narrative details like a jigsaw puzzle, not like a straight, linear story. Because of that, time and place are really fluid here. Not only does our story refuse to unfold in chronological order, we also revisit certain key moments over and over, each time learning a little more, putting another puzzle piece in place. Because we're in Tom's mind.

In sitting down to write this eulogy, Tom goes in search of his best friend Alvin and finds himself instead, and the whole journey takes place inside Tom's head, which is a very messy, conflicted head. Which means everything is subjective and jumbled together. Which means everything is gray area. Which is the best kind of theatre because that's life, as Tom says in the show.

That little revelation, when Tom says "It's life," is one of dozens of little moments in the show that pass by quickly, but resonate and become more meaningful as the full puzzle becomes clearer.

One fun detail -- of many -- in this show: Alvin's father owns a used bookstore called The Writer's Block, so named because it takes up an entire small city block. That bookstore and its contents figures prominently in our story, almost as another character, and so does its name. Tom is trying to write Alvin's eulogy, trying to "find" Alvin, trying to understand what happened between them, but he's stuck. And we're inside his head. We are literally inside of writer's block for the duration of the show -- and in certain scenes, we are also physically inside the store, The Writer's Block.

Such a cool show! One of those quirky but amazing musicals I often find and am thrilled to share with my friends and our audiences!

We had cast Chris Kernan as the lead in Something Rotten way back when; then we cast him as the baritone in Songs for a New World late this summer; and now he's playing Alvin. Chris is awesome. And he's in Head Over Heels in March, and he'll be choreographing Urinetown for us next June.

When I first listened to the cast album for this show a decade ago, I immediately thought Jeff Wright should play Tom. He seemed perfect for it. But then the show got put aside in favor of bigger shows. Then, ten years later, when I was casting The Story of My Life a few weeks ago, I was having trouble with Tom, and my bestie, longtime New Liner Alison Helmer said, "Have you asked Jeff Wright?" I hadn't asked Jeff, because he hadn't worked with us in a few seasons, and so he didn't immediately come to mind. But when Alison mentioned him, I remembered my first impressions of the show. Luckily, Jeff had no other projects in the way, so he joined us too.

It's been so fun and so easy working with these two guys. They're both really nice and have amazing instincts, rehearsals with them have been so easy, and they're both utterly ideal for these roles.

And BTW, this is the first time I've played rehearsals since 2016, and the first time I've played the show performances since 2002! And after a year and a half of not playing piano very much, I actually strained muscles in my right arm the first couple weeks by jumping too enthusiastically into this wonderful but very athletic score. So now I feel like a minor league pitcher, needing to ice his arm after a game. On the other hand (pun intended), I love playing this score!

For realz though, I am not the smartass kid I was when I started New Line thirty seasons ago. Now I'm just an aging smartass with a sore arm.

I am genuinely optimistic that people are going to fall in love with this odd little show exactly like they fell in love with Hands on a Hardbody seven (!) years ago. And they're going to fall in love with these characters and these two actors. We're gonna hear that frequent New Line refrain from our audiences, "I had no idea what to expect, but it was wonderful!" 

The Story of My Life is such a great way to restart after our pandemic hiatus, a very small show, with a very small cast, a very minimalist set, and a gigantic, deeply human heart. Come join us!

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here for Tickets!

In Defense of Charlie Brown

I've always had a love-hate relationship with the word deceptively. For example, suppose a musical is actually very complex, but it seems very simple. Is that show "deceptively complex" or "deceptively simple"? Yeah, me either. It's a valuable idea to have a word for, but no one is sure which way it works. Look it up in the dictionary, and it'll tell you it means either.

The Oxford English Dictionary website says, "Deceptively belongs to a very small set of words whose meaning is genuinely ambiguous in that it can be used in similar contexts to mean both one thing and also its complete opposite."

Gee, thanks. So the word deceptively is deceptively complex. Well played, sir.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is one of those shows that people tend to think of as a family show or even a kids' show. Just because the characters are all kids. Except they aren't. Just like the deliciously sharp character sketches in T.S. Eliot's Cats poems aren't really about cats either.

At least in Annie, the kids are really kids, even though Annie is also not a kids' show. What kid even understands "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," or what a Hooverville is, much less understands why the song is so darkly, angrily ironic?

But at least Annie is about a kid. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is not. It's about us in the audience. Just like Charles Schultz' brilliant strip. It's incredibly complex and subtle in its observations, but it comes across as so simple, so artless, so childlike.

In 1966, two fledgling producers approached songwriter Clark Gesner, who had written several character songs about the Peanuts comic strip. They wanted to create a full-length musical featuring Gesner’s songs and using Peanuts creator Charles Schultz’ original strips as dialogue scenes. In the spirit of the times, the show was to some extent group-devised with the actors, shaped and molded in rehearsal.

The show, dubbed You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, with book, music, and lyrics by Gesner, was directed by Joseph Hardy and choreographed by Patricia Birch (soon to do Grease), and opened off Broadway in March 1967 at Theatre 80 at St. Mark’s. It became an instant hit.

Hair was being created at the exact same time (also largely group-devised), and though that show was a more obvious expression of the hippie movement, Charlie Brown was a calmer, gentler, hippie cousin to Hair.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown looked both backward to Candide and forward to Cats. Certainly Charlie Brown was second cousin to Candide, perpetually beaten up by the world but always still soldiering on. And just as Cats wasn’t really about cats but more about the foibles of human beings, so too Charlie Brown was not really about kids but about the contradictions and inanities of adult society.

But also like Hair, it was a product of its time, laughing at adult culture under the cover of portraying five-year-olds. The song “Little Known Facts” was an obvious metaphor for the arguably tortured logic of organized religion, at least from the counterculture’s perspective. The show’s finale, “Happiness,” fully expressed the hippies’ philosophy of enjoying the simplicity and beauty of the world around us, letting go of life’s headaches and irritants, a full-throated declaration of love for the simple joys.

As in the strip that gave it life, each character in the show is an adult personality type – the impassioned and oblivious artist Schroeder (children and art!); the Zen-like philosopher (and fetishist) Linus; the pleasure-centric, Id-as-pet Snoopy; the controlling, bipolar bitch Lucy; and the long-suffering, ordinary, hopelessly passive Common Man, Charlie Brown. 

In fact, the whole show is a quirky but ultimately sincere exaltation of the Common Man, fully consistent with hippie philosophy. Though its characters are all stand-ins for adult personalities, their innocence and wide-eyed wonderment just might teach their audience something about living more fully and more authentically along the way.

Just a spoonful of sugar helps the philosophy and theology go down...

Fellow comic strip artist Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury, which also became a stage musical) described Schultz’s Peanuts strip as “the first Beat strip.” Edgy, unpredictable, way ahead of its time, the Peanuts strip had debuted in October 1950 and was regularly suffused with commentaries on literature, art, philosophy, classical music (and the question of what is art?), theology, medicine, psychiatry, sports, law, politics, and the still taboo themes of intolerance, depression, loneliness, cruelty, and despair. Trudeau said the strip “vibrated with 1950s alienation. Everything about it was different.” By the later 1960s, the Beat culture had evolved into the hippie culture, and a new sensibility had become clear in this material.

The producers wisely left You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown off Broadway where it belonged, with its bare set and colorful abstract cubes, rather than try to move it to Broadway to make more money. Richard P. Cooke wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The characters live in a zone where childhood and adult wisdom and disillusionment meet.” He called it “an unusually worthwhile evening based on what might have seemed an unlikely foundation for the stage.” Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times, “Charlie Brown’s combo, the best in town, embraces a handful of absolutely real, utterly earnest, deeply philosophical, and slightly insane undersized people.” Clive Barnes wrote, also in the Times, “So far as I can see it will probably run forever. It has a delicate way of bridging generations and bridging tastes.”

It ran an impressive 1,597 performances and sent out several national tours. One company played Boston for a full year. (An interesting bit of historical trivia – it was in Charlie Brown that famed film director Otto Preminger saw Gary Burghoff in the role of Charlie Brown, and recommended the actor to his brother Ingo Preminger, who was producing the 1970 film M*A*S*H. Burghoff was cast as “Radar” and it made his career.)

The musical was revived on Broadway in June 1971 but it only ran a month. It was revived again on Broadway in 1999, after a short tour, with new dialogue scenes from Schultz’s strips, two new songs by Andrew Lippa, and much re-orchestration throughout; and the character of Patty now morphed into Sally. It lasted only about five months and 149 performances, but it was nominated for four Tonys and won two, for Roger Bart as Snoopy and Kristin Chenoweth as Sally.

Perhaps it was never really meant for Broadway. Just like Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Passing Strange, Sweet Smell of Success, Hands on a Hardbody, and so many other musicals ruined by the commercial impositions of Broadway's insane economic model. Maybe Charlie Brown is too gentle and subtle for Broadway. This show buckles under the size and spectacle and over-sized acting big Broadway musicals usually require, in part to justify the gigantic ticket prices.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown isn't a wacky musical comedy. It's not some silly little kids' musical. It works best when the actors play these character as honestly as possible, realizing that each character is both a precocious five-year-old and a weary adult trying to navigate the fast changing world of late 1960s/early 1970s America. Or for that matter, early 21st-century America.

It's a character study of us. And when it's done right and treated with intelligence and warmth, it's an extraordinary evening of potent, adult theatre.

'Cause really, aren't we ALL blockheads now and then?

Long Live the Musical!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!