Droppin' Dimes in the Record Machine: The Roots of Grease

I've written a lot about Grease. It's one of my favorite shows, definitely Top Five. And I think it's horribly misunderstood. No, Sandy does not "become a slut" at the end. I've written a few blog posts about Grease, about how many productions screw it up, about the impressive craft of the writing, even about my love-hate relationship with the live TV version.

I recently wrote a whole book about the show, Go Greased Lightning: The Amazing Authenticity of Grease. In the back of my book, I created a chart of all the Grease songs alongside the real 1950s songs that probably inspired them. But there's a big difference between just knowing what the musical influences are, and hearing the original artists sing those songs. That's what this blog post is about. The Sound of Grease.

Everything about Grease (in its original stage version) is fully authentic; this is no parody or spoof. The characters are based on real people, the scenes are based on real events, and the music is the most authentic of all the elements. The songs in Grease sound exactly like the actual period rock and roll songs that likely inspired the numbers in the show. Sometimes the imitation is clearly intentional, other times probably more unconscious. After all, writers Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs lived their teenage years to this music.

In some cases, the chord changes are so similar that you can sing the Grease song in counterpoint to its source song. Comparing the songs in the show to their period sources illustrates so vividly the surprising authenticity of the Grease score, and it can be great help to actors and music directors who want to get that authentic sound of early rock and roll.

So throw your mittens around your kittens, and awaaaaay we go!

ACT I

“Alma Mater Parody”


“Johnny B. Goode”


“Roll Over Beethoven”


“School Day”



“Summer Nights”


“Don’t You Just Know It”



“Those Magic Changes”


“Diana”



“Freddy My Love”


“Eddie My Love”


“Tears On My Pillow”


“Da Doo Ron Ron”


“Be My Baby”



“Greased Lightning”


“Speedo”


“You Can’t Catch Me”



“Mooning”


”Tonight, Tonight”


“Since I Don’t Have You”



“Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”


“The Chipmunk Song”



“We Go Together”


“I’m So Happy”



ACT II

“Shakin’ at the High School Hop”
(not included on the original 1972 cast album)


“Reddy Teddy”


“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”


“Shake, Rattle, and Roll”


“High School Confidential”


“At the Hop”



“Raining on Prom Night”


“Frankie”


“Valentino”


“Little Darlin’”


“Lonely Days and Lonely Nights”



“Born to Hand-Jive”


“Bo Diddley”


“Willie and the Hand Jive”



“Beauty School Dropout”


“Earth Angel”




“Alone at a Drive-In Movie”


“The Great Pretender”


“Would I Be Cryin’?”


“Over the Mountain”


“Earth Angel”



“Rock & Roll Party Queen”


“Wake Up Little Susie”


“Come Go With Me”



“There Are Worse Things I Could Do”


“Happy Birthday Baby”



“All Choked Up”


“Breathless”


“Great Balls of Fire”


“Fever”



' “We Go Together”


“Oh Gee, Oh Gosh”


The various Grease revivals over the years, populated with big, screlty, Broadway voices, don't understand what makes these songs special. Early rock and roll is a lot like punk -- intentionally rough, unpolished, simple -- as a rebellion against the corporatized mainstream music coming at teenagers in the 1950s. Grease deserves a lot more respect than it gets. Its score is a masterpiece of pastiche, never mocking those original songs, but instead celebrating what made them great.

I'll probably never end my Grease crusade. But as crusades go, it's not a bad one. There are worse things I could do.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including Go Greased Lighting!click here.

It's the Little Things You Do Together

I wrote a post not long ago about "truisms" I've discovered working in the theatre for the past forty years, and I got a great response to it.

But I decided I should create a companion post to that one, specifically for younger actors and/or people newer to the process, or even as a gentle reminder to veteran actors.

Making theatre is a very complicated, very delicate, very precarious process, and the work the actors have to do is the most difficult because they have to use themselves, and their own experiences and emotions. It's hard to learn to do that, and it's hard to learn not to let it make you crazy.

But some of the most important things we learn, we learn in rehearsal and in performance. And these things are not all obvious; some of them are even counterintuitive. Some of these things you can learn only from working with experienced artists. I enjoy the great gift of working with both musical theatre veterans and newbies on almost every show, and I observe them throughout our process. 

Here are five important things for all actors to remember, which are all easy to forget, and none of them are self-evident.

Notes aren't criticisms; they are HELP. Being an actor is so hard on the ego, because you are the product and/or service you're selling. I try to convince actors that auditions aren't about who's best, but about who's right. But it still stings when you are rejected. Likewise, getting notes from the director, music director, and choreographer can sure feel like criticism, like you're being called out. But that's not what it is.

Theatre as an art form hasn't always had directors, as we think of them. The reason we do now, is that theatre got more and more complicated, audiences expectations grew more and more demanding, and acting morphed from just Declaring Speeches to "becoming" the character. For all these reasons, it became important to have someone(s) out front, who can see how all the pieces come together, who can be responsible for marshalling all these talents into a coherent, unified whole.

Like audiences, directors only want actors to succeed, to be wonderful, to tell a great story. When a director gives an actor a note, it's usually because something needs adjusting or correcting or rethinking, in order to tell the story as clearly as possible. Maybe the actor isn't saying a line clearly, or is in the way of other action on stage. Sometimes a note is about reminding the actor of their larger arc, of the context of a scene, of certain relationships or moments. After all, actors have a ton to remember. So while they're working on memorizing lines, learning choreography, getting used to blocking, the director helps them keep focus on all the important stuff, not just the stuff they're worrying about right this second.

A lot of actors have been trained to say "Thank you," when they get a note. The first time I heard that, it sounded funny to me, but it makes sense. I'm giving them a note to help them make their performance better, and they appreciate that.

And by the way, actors should never give other actors notes. For a million reasons.

Good Vibes are incredibly important in rehearsal and in the dressing room. I learned many, many moons ago that as director, my mood influences the mood of the whole room all evening. If I came into rehearsal cranky, we wouldn't have a great rehearsal, because it would be tense. If I came in with a smile and cheerful demeanor, the rehearsal would go much better, and everyone would get along better. I was a little freaked out about this at first, but I've gotten used to it.

Many casts quickly become families, especially after moving into the theatre and dressing rooms. They get very comfortable and familiar with each other, share funny stories, horror stories, anecdotes of past shows, etc. 

But rehearsals and performances are unbelievably delicate environments. The actors have to feel totally safe and "free to fail." The tiniest distraction can derail the work they're doing, and so can backstage dramas, cliques, and any other Bad Vibes.

It's really hard to put yourself into another person and life, access genuine emotions -- some of them painful as fuck -- and construct a fully believable time and place. That's why a phone ringing in the audience is so awful for actors on stage, or the extended unwrapping of candy.

That's why "Good Vibes" matter so much. I do everything I can to protect our actors during our process. Our rehearsals are all closed. But the actors have to do their part too, regardless of how their day has gone. Nothing is more toxic than bad vibes in the dressing room or rehearsal room. In order to make the magic we make, we have to leave life's bullshit outside, the everyday frustrations of family, friends, work. We have to bring only Good Vibes in with us. It sounds silly to say "Be positive!" but it makes a real difference.

The theatre is our church. It's a sacred space.

Most actors do far more work outside rehearsal than inside rehearsal. This may be the biggest surprise for "civilians" about working in theatre, especially musical theatre. A lot of people have to work together to make a musical, surely the most collaborative art form there is. And yet... all of us do most of our work outside rehearsal, apart from each other.

I work for hours at home figuring out the staging for a show, far longer than it takes to explain the staging to the actors in the rehearsal room. That's usually true for choreographers as well. The music director teaches the cast the score, but then the actors spend far more time at home working on and learning the music. Same with lines and blocking. And designers spend the vast majority of their time away from the actors, director, and everybody else.

We think that a bunch of artists come together to create a show. Except really, a bunch of artists create their pieces of a show and then bring all those pieces together, and mold them into a unified expression of storytelling. Newer, younger actors often don't understand that they can't only do the work at rehearsal; they'll spend all their time catching up, and make it harder on everyone else who has done their homework.

Shows evolve as they run, but they shouldn't change. Performances often get richer, deeper, more intense, over the course of a run. Scenes between actors often get richer and more emotional and more complex over time.

Great performances do evolve; but they don't change.

Once a show opens, actors should never change anything, even small things, without first checking with the director and any other actors who'll be affected. The whole idea of rehearsal is to experiment and find lots of good choices -- and then decide on one choice for any given moment, and give it time to settle and mesh with everything else. It's never nice to surprise other actors onstage. They have to be able to depend on you, and to depend on the staging and line readings they expect.

If you're getting bored in your performance, then you're not inside your performance the way you should be. If you're bored, it's because you're not focused. To give a truly great performance, you have to live inside the world of the story, not just "act" like it. You have to be the character. Which means you need to know the character inside and out, and know everything possible about the time, place, and every other detail about this fictional world. And once you do that, once you find the character, the balance, size, and tempo of your performance, once you feel the character behind the wheel, once you feel that letting go of your self, you won't want to change anything. But it will evolve.

And yes, this applies to people in the chorus, people with small roles -- everybody.

Nothing Matters More Than Honesty. Sometimes I wonder if younger actors think we're just being pretentious and artsy when we talk about honesty -- but it's so important, even fundamental to good theatre. Even when you're doing an outrageous show, like Urinetown, Head Over Heels, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bat Boy, Something Rotten!, even Jerry Springer the Opera, nothing matters more than honesty.

All good acting is not subtle acting. It's possible to be both exaggerated, even outrageous, and also honest. One of the writers of Bat Boy coined a phrase that became the performing philosophy of the Actor’s Gang in Los Angeles: “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity.”

In other words, the canvas might be 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. Theatre scholar Tom Oppenheim writes in the outstanding book Training of the American Actor about the great acting guru Stella Adler, "Stella insisted that characters must be multidimensional and grounded in oneself. They must be real human beings. But she does not shy away from painting characters in broad strokes. While she demands truth, she never shies away from size."

Many actors think minimalistic film acting is the only kind of "real" acting, but designer Robert Edmond Jones writes in his brilliant book, The Dramatic Imagination, "The only theatre worth saving, the only theatre worth having, is a theatre motion pictures cannot touch. When we succeed in eliminating from it every trace of the photographic attitude of mind, when we succeed in making a production that is the exact antithesis of a motion picture, a production that is everything a motion picture is not and nothing a motion picture is, the old lost magic will return once more. The realistic theatre, we may remember, is less than a hundred years old. But the theatre – great theatre, world theatre – is far older than that, so many centuries older that by comparison it makes our little candid-camera theatre seem like something that was thought up only the day before yesterday."

Actors are the priests and shamans of our times. All storytellers are. We need to take that seriously. Humans need stories. We are the storytellers. Hope these reminders help.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

Something Rottener!

Our amazing, rave-reviewed production of Something Rotten! had to end prematurely because of Covid. We only lost our last two performances, but it still sucks. I hate that we still have to deal with this. If you're not fully vaccinated and boosted, please do it -- for the local theatre community, if for no other reason.

It's hard enough on us artsies to close a show under normal conditions, but having to cancel the last two performances makes it so much harder. We feel "cheated," I guess. I will miss living in this wacky, upside-down world of the Bottoms so much!

So here's my way of processing all this -- a parody lyric, with apologies to the Kirkpatrick Brothers.
Welcome to the Covid Plague,
The new Black Death for our tuneful egg;
That's Something Rotten!
The critics ate us up;
We were an obvious hit.
Until the virus took a shit on it!

Welcome to the theatre,
Where Covid is the Great Canceler,
So small, so mighty!
It leaves our coffers empty
And our budgeting vexed.
What closes next?
Covid flexed,
And theatres are battered and perplexed.

Here we have a musical or cabaret;
There we have a one-act and a Pinter play.
These shows we put our hope in
May close the night they open.
It kills us but the Covid couldn't care.

Take all the precautions that you're s'posed to take;
Mask up for rehearsal, just for safety's sake.
But odds are good, I'll betcha,
The Covid's gonna getcha,
Floating freely in our very air!

Due to this pandemic
And all that it's wrought,
We know our labors
Might all come to naught...

Welcome to the Covid Plague,
In which our future looks awfully vague;
And that feels rotten!
Our audiences loved us;
We lightened their mood;
While Covid brewed.
Sure, it's crude,
But the Covid Plague has left us all so screwed!

(And by the way, if you'd like to make a generous contribution to New Line to offset the losses of our canceled performances of Something Rotten!, you can click here. And thank you in advance!)

So another wild and wonderful adventure is over. It ended more abruptly than we expected, but we got to share this amazing show with audiences for ten performances, we got nothing but praise and rave reviews, and we had SUCH A GOOD TIME working on this!

But we didn't get to "finish." I realize that we haven't had a closing night cast party since 2019 -- and I realize now how important those parties are, to "close" the experience, to celebrate our success, to say our goodbyes and thank-you's, to finish this experience, in order to go on to the next project.

I've come to understand over the years that ritual is incredibly important to the psychological health of humans, particularly recurring rituals, like holidays, birthdays, religious rites, and theatre.

And also, final cast parties. It's a ritual we repeat for a reason.

I can't wait for the time when we don't have to wear masks in rehearsal, when we don't have to worry about shows getting shut down mid-run, when we can have opening night parties and closing night cast parties again, when we can return to our annual New Line Holiday Dinner.

For obvious reasons, I keep hearing in my head this dialogue from Shakespeare in Love:
Henslowe: What have I done, Mr. Fennyman?
Fennyman: The theatres are all closed by the plaque!
Henslowe: Oh, that.
Fennyman: By order of the Master of the Revels!
Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, let me explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of unsurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Believe me, to be closed by the plague is a bagatelle in the ups and downs of owning a theatre.
Fennyman: So what do we do?
Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Fennyman: How?
Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.

All my life in the theatre, catastrophe after disaster, Henslowe's been right -- strangely enough, it all turns out well. Always. Until 2020, that is. 

So we're still waiting. I don't care how it works, I just want it to work.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

P.S. To make a donation to New Line, click here.

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

P.P.P.S. For info about my newest musical, A Reefer Madness Christmas, click here.

Nothing's As Amazing As This Musical

You don't notice the deceptively complex, incredibly sophisticated structure and form of Something Rotten!, largely because the dialogue is so laugh-out-loud funny on the surface.

BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD...

The premise is sheer wacky genius -- A rival and former mentor of Shakespeare's becomes his Salieri, who schemes and lies and cheats to beat Shakespeare in the marketplace; but one giant mistake early on (trusting Nostradamus' nephew to see the future clearly) poisons every step of his plan -- without him knowing it until too late.

The rival, this Salieri to Shakespeare's Mozart, is Nick Bottom -- who we know, because we live in the story's future, will become one of Shakespeare's most ridiculous characters in one of his most famous plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream -- which isn't written yet in 1595 when our story is set. And the writers of Something Rotten! give all this a credible backstory. Will was once a member of Nick's acting troupe, but Nick really hated him, so he suggested Will try writing instead of acting, thus creating his own unbeatable rival in the process. All of that fits into real world details we know.

Years ago, I wrote a show called Attempting the Absurd (and I'm currently revisiting it), about a guy who has figured out he's only a character in a musical comedy and doesn't actually exist. I love the premise, but it took me months to figure out the rules and logic for this odd universe I had created. It was hard. But once all the rules were established, it was easier to pull off the trick.

The same thing is at play with Something Rotten! Once the premise was in place, it took the writers quite a while to work out the rules of this intricately plotted story. Every piece of the story relies on another piece, which relies on another piece, etc. So many of the fundamental ideas are set up so casually, so subtly, that the rich payoffs later on are great surprises (like Bea's male drag). And yet it all seems so wild and chaotic.

Like all great farces, structure is everything here.

All three of the show's writers agree that this was one of the hardest projects they had ever worked on. The reason it was so hard to construct is the reason it's so perfect -- they built a fully alternate reality and nothing in the story rips that weird fabric or violates that world's rules. Within that crazy universe, there is a perfect interior logic to everything that happens -- no matter how silly. 

A big part of the show's fun is the relationship between the world of Something Rotten! and our real world. Only we in the audience know what Nostradamus is getting right and, more importantly, what he's getting wrong. Likewise, we already know (or at least, know about) Shakespeare's plays, even though in this fictional world, most of them haven't been written yet.

One of the running jokes in the show is that whenever Nigel writes something new, we recognize it as a Shakespeare quote, and we realize (at least in this alternate universe), many of Shakespeare's greatest quotes really came from Nigel Bottom. This is set up in the very first rehearsal scene, after the opening number. The dialogue they're writing and rehearsing ("Oh noble kinsmen...") is from Shakespeare's Richard II -- a play Nick and Nigel have been writing, but soon Will's writing that play too. He's already stealing from the brothers.

In another fun reality dissonance, Nick insists on going forward with Omelette the Musical, But Nigel is determined to write his own story, and he eventually arrives, sort of accidentally, at what we all know today as the real plot of Hamlet. By this point in Something Rotten!, we already know Will Shakespeare is actively stealing Nigel's work, but the implications are so far-reaching we don't think about them. Nigel is actually writing Hamlet, Shakespeare steals it and sends the Bottom Brothers to America, after which he debuts Hamlet himself in London. In the world of Something Rotten!, all Shakespeare really contributed to his greatest play was the right title.

But that creates a wild time loop. Thomas Nostradamus looks into the future and (sort of) sees Shakespeare's Hamlet. And it's his mistaken vision, Omelette, that Nick undertakes and that spurs Nigel to write his own version of Omelette, which eventually becomes Hamlet, which Shakespeare steals and produces... which Nostradamus looks into the future to see...

One of the many clever tricks in the show is that the word "rotten" fits in both Hamlet and Omelette. In Hamlet, it's part of the famous line, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," referring to the corruption of the crown. In Omelette, the whole idea of a rotten egg becomes the dominant metaphor for Nick's show (and Nick).

As Nostradamus says at the end, "I was this close!" And using this iconic phrase as the title is funny too, since it can easily be construed to comically criticize itself.

Part of the impressive craft here is the wild mixing of reality and nonreality, real people and fictional people, real shows and fictional shows. The coolest, and least noticed, mashup of that kind is the idea that Shakespeare did not write his own plays. That's a real conspiracy theory in our real world, and there are several candidates that certain people believe really wrote those plays, using Will Shakespeare as only a fictional public persona. Yet here in Something Rotten! the essence of that real world idea gets comically morphed into the parallel idea that Shakespeare was real; he just stole all his plays instead of writing them. We have to wonder who else he steals from? Kit Marlowe?

And of course Something Rotten! also creates an alternate timeline in which musical comedy was invented -- sort of -- not really -- by the Bottom Brothers and brought to America way back in 1595.

But they could do that only because Thomas looked into the future and saw what musicals would be. We know that his visions are of our mid-20th-century through the early 21st-century. But if the origins of musical comedy go back four hundred years earlier in their world than they do in our real world timeline, what more would musicals have evolved into by the 21st century? Would our present musical theatre be advanced four hundred years further, into what would really be our musical theatre future?

Sadly, we'll never know for sure because Thomas doesn't see so good. Oh, and also because it's only a silly, little, musical comedy.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

P.S. Single tickets for Something Rotten! are on sale now. For more info about the show, click here.

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

The Stupidest Thing That I Have Ever Heard

Years ago, I was reading a book about musical theatre and I encountered the word "diegetic" for the first time. I could sort of understand what it meant from the context, but I had to look it up to really understand it.

Once I did, I couldn't believe I had lived that long without this incredibly helpful word. I quickly discovered that this term helps so much in talking about how our ridiculously complex art form of musical theatre works, particularly the 21st-century forms like neo musical comedies and neo rock musicals.

In 2014, I wrote a blog post about musical theatre terms and their definitions, and this is what I wrote about the term "diegetic":

"Diegetic" is a label that describes music or a song that comes out of the world of the story, rather than from the language of the storytelling, music that both the audience and the characters can hear. Okay, maybe that's not all that clear. Usually in musicals, the characters are not aware they're singing. In Spring Awakening, we're not supposed to believe that, inside this narrative, all these kids are actually singing in a circle around the couple having sex. Or in Guys and Dolls, when Nathan and Adelaide sing the hilarious fight-song "Sue Me," inside the reality of the story, the characters are not singing their fight on the street; they don't hear it as singing. We only hear it as singing because a musical is telling this story. Singing is just the language of the storytelling, the same way that iambic pentameter is the language of Shakespeare's plays.

But sometimes, the music is actually organic inside the story. For example, in Cabaret, many of the songs are being performed in the Kit Kat Klub, and all the characters are aware that they're singing. Likewise in Rent, when Roger plays and sings "Your Eyes," all the characters know he's singing. Same with Angel's "Today 4 U," and also "We Love You Conrad" in Bye Bye Birdie, "Be Like the Bluebird" in Anything Goes, "Sing" and "One" in A Chorus Line, "The Parlor Songs" in Sweeney Todd, and "Nicest Kids in Town" in Hairspray. These are all diegetic numbers. The music comes from inside the story.

One essay I read put it this way: Music that the characters can hear is diegetic (for example, a song playing on a car stereo); music that only the audience can hear is extra-diegetic or "mimetic" (for example the orchestral score to a movie). Most early movie musicals used only diegetic music, club numbers, auditions, other performances. You can see how useful this term is since so many musicals mix and match diegetic and mimetic.

But there's a further wrinkle.

Especially in the concept musicals and neo musical comedies of this new millennium, there are two kinds of narration. There is extra-diegetic narration, in which the (usually omniscient) narrator stands outside the story and recounts it for us, like the adult Alison in Fun Home, Stew in Passing Strange, the narrator in Into the Woods, and the criminologist in The Rocky Horror Show. But there are also intra-diegetic narrators, who tell the story from inside the story, like Officer Lockstock and Little Sally in Urinetown, Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, President Jackson in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and the whole cast of Come From Away.

This second type is a tough tightrope for actors, being both character and narrator, existing both inside the action and in this theatre tonight with this audience, at the same time. But audiences instinctually understand it and accept it.

As it is in every other respect, Something Rotten! is an unusually complicated "mental mindfuck" when it comes to all this. In the opening number, the whole cast are intra-diegetic narrators, existing both in London in 1595 and in this theatre tonight telling us this story. But that by itself wouldn't be so mind-blowing; the evil geniuses who wrote this show went way deeper and further. The shining example of their intellectual hijinks is the song "It's a Musical."

The real brilliance here is that all the humor in the song relies on the audience's previous knowledge of musical theatre conventions, as well as specific musicals. Without the knowledge the audience brings in with them, the song isn't funny. That's a neat trick!

"It's a Musical" is is set up with dialogue that's funny on so many layers.
Nostradamus: Whoa! What spectacle! I have seen the future!

Nick: What, what is it??!

Nostradamus: The biggest, most fantastic thing in theater will be... MUSICALS!

Nick: What?

Nostradamus: Musicals!

Nick: What the hell are musicals?

Nostradamus: It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops And the plot is conveyed through song.

Nick: Through song?

Nostradamus: Yes.

Nick: Wait, so an actor is saying his lines and out of nowhere he just starts singing?

Nostradamus: Yes.

Nick: Well that is the...
(Singing) Stupidest thing that I have ever heard!
You're doing a play,
Got something to say,
So you sing it?
It's absurd!
Who on earth is going to sit there
While an actor breaks into song?
And what possible thought
Could the audience think
Other than "This is horribly wrong"?

The writers have pulled off several tricks here. First, they've set up a situation in which the audience knows far more than any of the characters do, which is always fun in a comedy. Second, they are establishing that Nostradamus can see the future, just not very well; and our previous knowledge shows us just how much he gets wrong and how much he gets right. Third, they're literally describing what they themselves are doing in real time -- and disparaging it! Fourth, it reminds the audience just how weird and arbitrary the rules and conventions of musicals are, which we all accept without even thinking about it. And Fifth, traditional musical theatre has always tried to smooth over the transition from speaking to singing, to make it as seamless, as "natural" as possible, often using underscoring to ease us into a musical number -- but this intentionally makes it comically, freakishly obvious.

Then, responding to Nick's question about the audience...
Nostradamus: Remarkably, they won't think that.

Nick: Why not?

Nostradamus replies in song, "'Cause it's a musical..." and the song is off and running. The jokes and references come so fast and furiously that we don't notice his wacky, circular, but weirdly insightful logic: Audiences don't mind the odd conventions of muiscals because they are musicals.

And once again, we're both inside and outside the story at the same time. Nostradamus is explaining all this to Nick as part of the plot. But also, they're talking about us! They're inviting us to laugh at our own automatic agreement to accept some very strange conventions. And why do we accept them? Because "Nothing's as amazing as a musical!" On the surface, he's telling us we like musicals precisely because of their conventions (song, dance, etc.), but he's also remarking on the crazy complexity of our art form, and how amazing it is that we all so readily accept all these incredibly unnatural conventions.

And as Nostradamus proceeds to describe what musicals are, how they work, examples of them, etc., we in the audience are reminded over and over and over that we recognize a lot of famous musicals, as the song spews forth dozens of references, both textual and musical, to other stage musicals. Some of the references are really short and fly by at high speed, and yet audiences still get them. There's a one-measure musical quote of "Hey Big Spender!" and every night it gets a laugh.

But why does the audience's recognition of the references elicit laughter? They laugh because there are so many references, and they recognize how universal many of them are. Even people who don't know musicals very well can recognize many of these iconic textual and musical phrases. And some of us laugh because we can't believe we catch so many, even the almost hidden, one-measure, musical quote of "Putting It Together."

All comedy is a surprise and tells the truth. "It's a Musical" is one surprise after another, because musicals aren't supposed to talk about musicals this much -- especially from a faux "outsider" point of view. But also, everything Nostradamus explains about musicals is true, and we know it. As they do the song, we are being entertained in exactly the way Nostradamus is explaining.

In the middle of the number, Nostradamus deconstructs the "dance break":
Nick: What the hell are you doing now?

Nostradamus: It’s called a “dance break.” Apparently, this happens in musicals as well. People on stage, just bursting into spontaneous dance!

Nick: Why? Does it advance the plot?

Nostradamus: No.

Nick: Develop character?

Nostradamus: Nope!

Nick: Then why do it?

Nostradamus: Because -- IT’S ENTERTAINING! 5, 6, 7, 8!

Annnnd there's a big dance break. Now, of course, in some musicals, dance very much advances plot and/or character. But the funny part here is that, in this case, dance really does advance the plot, because Nick needs this information in order to proceed with his plan. This quick exchange sets us up for the insanely funny dance breaks in Omelette the Musical.

The extra-ironic part of "It's a Musical" is that the song celebrates musicals, but even more specifically, it pretends to celebrate simple, breezy, brainless musicals -- which is exactly the opposite of the high-concept, intellectual tomfoolery of Something Rotten! After all, this show is relentlessly silly, but it's also deeply human, and it's one of the most intellectual and literate musicals in the last twenty years.

All this self-awareness and all these outside references are meta-theatrical devices, which remind us of the act of storytelling alongside the story itself. Some musicals indulge in meta jokes because the writers think it's funny, and they know it's an easy laugh. Some musicals use meta devices as an organic part of the story. Shows like Urinetown, Bat Boy, Chicago, Passing Strange, and others are built on the dissonance and resonance between the story and the storytelling. In Chicago, each number and each scene are presented as vaudeville acts, to make literal the central theme that America makes crime into entertainment. Likewise, with The Scottsboro Boys, we're watching a minstrel show, a racist storytelling form, which tells us an horrific real-world story of racial injustice. The form of its storytelling -- and its shame -- is part of the point of the show.

In Something Rotten!, the whole premise is built on the act of looking into the future of theatre, but from the point of view of 1595. So their "future" of theatre is our "present." The future audience that Nostradamus sees is us. Though the device is inherently funny, here it's also dramatic -- it's the terrible mistake Nick makes that causes all his troubles. He "cheats" by trying to "steal" future success. He values commercial success over personal and artistic success, and he pays a great price for it.

But wait... that's only half the magic trick our writers have pulled off with this show. They also indulge in all this same meta playfulness with Shakespeare's plays and the conventions of Elizabethan theatre, once again relying on our previous cultural knowledge.

It's an artistic BOGO.

The original production of Something Rotten! was funny, but it was so chock full of sight gags and other pointless schtick, that all that shallow crap overshadowed much of what's exciting and original about this material. In New Line's production, minus the sight gags, minus the schtick, our audiences tell me every night that they think the show is funnier this way than it was on Broadway and on tour, and not surprisingly, more emotionally engaging.

On Broadway, director Casey Nicholaw asked himself, How can I make this funny? Here at New Line, we just asked, How can we most clearly tell this wonderful, funny, human story? Big difference.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

P.S. Single tickets are on sale now. For more info about the show, click here.

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

He Entertains, But He Makes You Think As Well

Often when we announce our season, someone will see a show listed that surprises them, and then they'll say to me, "Ooh, what are you going to do to it?"

That drives me nuts. While we approach some of our shows in completely different ways from the original productions, we approach other shows a lot like their original productions did. This time, we are coming at Something Rotten! with a fairly different approach from the original. But it's never about doing something to the shows; it's about figuring out what story is being told (which isn't always obvious), and then figuring out the clearest possible way we can tell that story. That's all.

In the case of Something Rotten!, as much as I love the show, I found it hard to love the original production, which was constantly begging for laughs, underlining every joke with a sight gag, inserting pointless gags that interrupted the wonderfully wacky story. I've come to the conclusion that the original director Casey Nicholaw just isn't a naturally funny person, and he doesn't understand this new form of the neo musical comedy; so he tries to show us funny, he tries to tell us funny, instead of just telling a very funny story.

We don't have to make Something Rotten! funny. It already is.

So how do we tell this story as clearly as possible? Get out of its way. When material is this good, this  funny and this well-plotted, anything you try to add or "enhance" will just get in the way of this extremely well-told story.

You don't buy a Maserati, then buy horses to pull it.

This show is brilliant. I mean it. Not only in its conception, not only in the lean, hilarious script and catchy, laugh-out-loud songs. But within this strange universe, everything in the story plays out logically, and all the characters take the high stakes very seriously. It's an incredibly well built narrative that's hiding behind the laughs.

It feels like a rowdy old-school musical comedy, but that's what neo musical comedies do -- they use the tools of old-school musical comedy for more interesting, more sophisticated aims. In Something Rotten! the writers are asking questions about commercial success vs. artistic success vs. personal success. They're asking question about the creative process and the mind-bending struggle of birthing a new work of art. They're asking questions about why we Americans love musicals, about how much they're a part of our consciousness, about how they manipulate us -- and they're laughing at our knowledge of the great American musicals.

The intellectual power of this musical is every bit equal to its pure entertainment value, which is considerable. As we can see at work in outrageous musicals like Bat Boy, Cry-Baby, and Head Over Heels, musicals are uniquely able to touch our hearts deeply even while making us laugh out loud. The writers could have mocked the emotions of these characters, but instead they gave them all very real, very complicated feelings, that engage us on a very human level.

The trick for the actors is to play these characters as honestly and seriously as possible. We don't have to make it funny. The show's comedy is already doing zero to sixty, just in the opening number.

So yes, this is a wacky, outrageous comedy, but it's built entirely on an intellectual conceit. The situation at the beginning of our story is half real world and half alternate reality. So the realer the acting, the closer to our recognizable reality, the better the story works, and the funnier all of it is.

In this world, Shakespeare is an intolerable asshole and a relentless plagiarist, but still a box office giant. Our story is set in 1595, so Will has already written all three parts of Henry VI, Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew. And just in the last year or so, he's written The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labour's Lost. His hit play Romeo and Juliet has just opened, and next up is Richard II.

Part of the ongoing fun is the idea that these plays are all new, that the famous quotes aren't famous yet, that people don't know the plot twists yet, and that Shakespeare is still grasping for new ideas for his next play. Significantly, Will's next play will be A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Nick Bottom and his entire acting troupe (minus Nigel) will be portrayed as clumsy, talentless hacks. Payback is a bitch.

And this alternate reality actually seems to affect the real world we already know. Of course, we in the audience only sense all this because we know the future! The future from the perspective of 1595. We know the names of plays and characters that Shakespeare will write in the future.

It puts us on a level with Thomas Nostradamus. We have a limited but real view of the future.

Within the year, Shakespeare will write King John; A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Nick Bottom is literally turned into an ass; and The Merchant of Venice, about a really mean Jewish moneylender named Shylock, and a pious young woman named Portia.

A few years after our story, Shakespeare will write the hilarious Much Ado About Nothing, starring a smart, ball-busting feminist named Beatrice, presumably (inside the universe of Something Rotten!) named for Bea(trice) Bottom.

Are we to believe Will also overheard the names of Bea's two friends in Act II? He takes the name Helena for one of his leads in Midsummer. He stores away the other friend's name, Miranda, to use fifteen years later in The Tempest. All through the show, Shakespeare hears clever phrases, often from Nigel, and we see him tuck them away to use later -- and of course, they're all quotes we know as Shakespeare Quotes.

Which also subtextually ties into the actual, real-world subculture of scholars who don't believe Will Shakespeare actually wrote the plays. This running subplot of rampant plagiarism in the show jokingly half-verifies the conspiracy theory since Shakespeare is constantly stealing other people's (i.e., Nigel's) work.

One of the last of the meta Shakespeare jokes in the show is at the end of the courtroom scene, when we find out the name of the Master of Justice is Lord Falstaff.
SHAKESPEARE: But if a merciful ending is not written here today [in court], then on my stage shall I replay these events -- with these characters and thee at thy bench -- then, shall I see fair justice done.

MASTER OF THE JUSTICE: Are you saying you might write a play about this? With me as a character? Well, I wouldn’t want to look the fool.

SHAKESPEARE: And you shan't, Lord Falstaff...

That's a huge laugh for the Shakespeare fans. Sir John Falstaff is one of the most disreputable characters Shakespeare ever put onstage, forever drunk, lazy, sloppy, blasphemous, but great fun at a party! He's a monumentally bad influence on young Hal, who will grow up to be King Henry V. And Shakespeare will write Henry V just a few years after our story.

It's a double laugh because it also points up a dark truism. The playwrights -- the storytellers -- always get the last word. Virtually nobody knows anything about the real Richard III, but lots of people know all about Shakespeare's villainous hunchbacked Richard III. And poor Lord Falstaff! It hardly seems fair, does it?

And then Will tells Lord Falstaff to banish the Bottoms to America (and eliminate Nigel as potential competition!), and to "Send them off this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm -- this England." That's a quote from Richard II, which Will has just written. He's quoting himself again.

Near the end, Falstaff says of Shakespeare, "It's good because he entertains, but he makes you think as well..." It's another delicious meta moment, because that describes Something Rotten! as well.

The entire show is peppered with what we would call Shakespeare quotes. But some of them are from plays he's already written in 1595, in which case, Will is quoting himself, or Nigel, Portia, and others are quoting his plays they've seen recently. (Shakespeare's first play was only five years earlier.) Some of the quotes in the musical are from future plays, and most of those are positioned as things other people say, which Shakespeare files away for future use. In both directions, it's awfully smart comedy, and it just enhances the wild meta nature of the show.

We New Liners are really lucky, because we only work on the very best of our art form, and Something Rotten! is in that category. It's taken the often misused and abused form of the meta-musical to an entirely other level of artistry and complexity. In this show, as in Bat Boy, Urinetown, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other great meta-musicals, the meta devices aren't just for laughs; they are an integral, inherent part of the basic premise of the story.

And it all works only because of us, the audience, and our shared common knowledge of Shakespeare, his famous lines (many of which we don't even know are his!), the style and sound of his dialogue, etc. Even for people who've never seen any of his plays, Shakespeare is such a ubiquitous part of Western culture. And the Kirkpatrick Brothers' stroke of genius was taking this figure of reverence and antiquity, and turning him into a modern asshole of a rock star, upending our expectations, but somehow also making this historical figure more flawed and more human than usual, which allows us to connect to him in a whole new way.

Maybe the true mark of the writers' skill is that most people seeing the show will never even think about all this stuff, and yet it works on them anyway, and they will have a real blast going for this crazy, twisty, ever-surprising roller coaster ride of comedy.

Everything about Something Rotten! is great. And every day I discover more evidence of that. It's such a gift to work on material this exciting and challenging, material we know will delight our audiences. We can't wait to share it! We open in just a few weeks!

Long Live the Meta-Musical!
Scott

P.S. Season tickets are on sale now, and single tickets are on sale now as well. For more info about the show, click here.

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

Bacon and Chicken

Part of the crazy fun of Something Rotten! is the dozens of Shakespeare references. It's a very funny show even if you know nothing about Shakespeare, but it's extra funny if you do know about him. So with that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to create a Something Rotten! glossary, for our actors and our audiences.

And then I realized how many references there are in this script and score, so I'm starting with just the opening song, "Welcome to the Renaissance."

RENAISSANCE is French for "rebirth," as Something Rotten! tells us at the end of the opening number. Apparently, scholars disagree a bit, but this period started roughly in the 15th century and lasted through the 16th century. It was a time of returning to the ideals of Classical Greece and Rome, of massive advances in art, literature, music, architecture, politics, science, and lots more. And Shakespeare was writing his plays in the late 1500s and early 1600s, almost as a sort of culmination of everything the Renaissance brought us.

SOMETHING ROTTEN! is an incredibly clever, multi-layered title (the best ones always are) that references both Hamlet and also, Nick and Thomas' clumsy misreading of Hamlet as Omelette. The original quote, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," is a line from Hamlet, as Marcellus and Horatio discuss two disturbing things: the ghost of Hamlet's father appearing at night, and also the moral ambiguity of Hamlet's uncle sitting on the throne and all the intrigue behind that. But when Nick and Thomas mistake the title for Omelette, the quote takes on two more meanings, the "rottenness" of the idea to write a musical about omelettes, and the various unpleasant schemes unfolding, most notably Nick trying to cheat and steal using Thomas' dubious powers. As I wrote about in my last post, it creates multiple meta-theatrical layers. 

WAR OF THE ROSES refers to a series of civil wars in England in the later 1400s, fought between the Lancasters and the Yorks over who gets to inherit the crown. At the beginning of Shakespeare's play Richard III, Richard tells us briefly of his family's victory and the resulting boredom for him. Richard opens the play with this speech:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

The "winter of our discontent" is the War of the Roses, and the "glorious summer" is the Yorks' victory. Then Richard makes a pun. The word "sun" refers to the metaphorical summer that has come, and it also is heard by the audience as "this son of York," because he is part of the House of York. Then he talks about how much everything has changed, and the bad times dispelled. 
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

Now instead of war, the new peacetime pastime is sex, "capering" (fooling around) in "a lady's chamber" (her bedroom), to sexy music. But that's a problem for Richard, because he's a hunchback and nobody wants to fool around with him.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:

Wow, this guy is pissed, at life, at himself, at everybody else. So he decides if nobody will fuck him, he's going to fuck over everybody else.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.

Richard is the Earl of Gloucester, so the prophecy he mentions predicts he will kill his brother Clarence. And as soon as he says it out loud, Clarence shows up.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

Such a great opening to a play! But there's some interesting resonance here between angry Richard and angry Nick, and Nick does some dirty deeds as well, though he stops short of murder.

CHAUCER
was a very famous writer, author of The Canterbury Tales, among other things, and he is often referred to as the Father of English Literature or the Father of English Poetry. He was also a respected philosopher and astronomer, and he scares the shit out of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn!

THE CRUSADES were a series of religious wars initiated, supported, and directed by the Catholic Church in the medieval period. The best known of these Crusades are those to the Holy Land in the period between 1095 and 1291 that were intended to recover Jerusalem and its surrounding area from Islamic rule. Beginning with the First Crusade, which resulted in the recovery of Jerusalem in 1099, dozens of Crusades were fought, providing a focal point of European history for centuries. Later on, the Crusades arguably led to The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which was at its peak powers of terror about a century before Shakespeare.

BUBONIC PLAGUE, also known as The Black Death, is a terrible disease spread by fleas and small infected mammals. It was the most lethal pandemic in world history, lasting about ten years in the mid-1300s, killing up to 200 million people, and it's still with us today. The estimates are that the Black Death killed 30-60% of the population in Europe, and about a third of the population of the Middle East. It was known as The Black Death because one of the symptoms was acral necrosis, a dark discoloration of the skin.

CHARLEMAGNE, French for "Charles the Great," was the first emporer of the Holy Roman Empire, uniting Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Charles was son of Pepin the Short, and two of his sons were named Louis the Pious and Pepin the Hunchback. Intrigue, plots to bring disaster...

LUTE is a stringed instrument, close to a guitar or mandolin, and it was the lead instrument for most Renaissance music.

THE HOUSE OF TUDOR was one of the royal bloodlines in England, and Henry VII took over the throne after the War of the Roses, because the House of Lancaster had no more male heirs. Henry then married into the House of York. The style of architecture during this period became known as Tudor as well.

FARTHINGALE is just a Renaissance version of the structure under a hoop skirt.

THOMAS DEKKER was a dramatist, a pamphleteer, and a versatile and prolific writer. His career spanned several decades and brought him into contact with many of the period's most famous dramatists.

FRANCIS BACON
was a gay English philosopher and statesman who served as Attorney General and as Lord Chancellor of England. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare's. His works are seen as contributing to the scientific method and remained influential through the later stages of the scientific revolution. Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. He argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive reasoning and careful observation of events in nature.

Bacon's philosophy is laid out in the many writings he left behind, His scientific works described his ideas for a universal reform of knowledge into scientific methodology. His religious and literary works laid out his moral philosophy and theological meditations. His juridical writings laid out Bacon's proposals for reforms in English Law.

In "Welcome to the Renaissance," one actor sings, "Hey Look, it's Francis Bacon with a chicken." Another sings, "What's he makin'?" And the first one replies, "Well, I think he found a way of freezing meat." It's true. And it's a weird story. Bacon had theorized that fresh meat could be kept fresh by freezing it. To prove his theory, he stuffed a chicken with snow, packed snow around it, and buried it. And he caught pneumonia and died.

SIR WATER RALEIGH was an English statesman, soldier, writer, explorer, and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. He played a leading part in English colonization of North America (and the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop), he helped suppress rebellion in Ireland, and he helped defend England against the Spanish Armada.

JOHN WEBSTER was the last of the great Elizabethan playwrights, known particularly for his extremely gory tragic plays. Webster as a child shows up in the film Shakespeare in Love, as a comically bloodthirsty street kid who loves the uber-gore of Shakespeare play Titus Andronicus, and not incidentally he enjoys feeding live mice to cats. That's all fictional, but it's a great way to establish the ultra violence of his future plays.

BEN JONSON was considered the second greatest English playwright, after our boy Will. He was famous for his satirical comedies.

CHRISTOPHER "KIT" MARLOWE was a gay atheist (neither acceptable at the time) and an incredibly famous and successful playwright, considered now to be the greatest Elizabethan playwright until Shakespeare took over the title after Marlowe's mysterious early death. He also makes an appearance in Shakespeare in Love. One of Marlowe's biggest hits was Tamburlaine the Great.

THOMAS KYD was another of the important Elizabethan playwrights (there were a lot!) and his most famous work is The Spanish Tragedy.

THOMAS MIDDLETON was unusual among his peers for writing comedies, tragedies, and histories, all three.

THOMAS MORE was an English lawyer, judge, social philosopher, author, statesman, and humanist. He opposed the Protestant Reformation and the Church of England. He was a mentor and advisor to Henry VIII, who executed him for not taking the Supremacy Oath, which said that the King is the head of the Church of England. He's also a major character in the cable drama The Tudors.

Later in the show, at the after-party, Nigel and Portia see one more celebrity writer of the time...

EDMUND SPENCER is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. He's best known for The Faerie Queene, an epic fantasy poem and allegory celebrating the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I.

This opening song of Something Rotten!, "Welcome to the Renaissance," does so much important narrative work, like all the best opening numbers do. It sets up time and place, the establishing situation, and it subtly sets up the central conflict to come. It also sets up the ironic meta-device of essentially setting the story in 1595 and 2022.

But it also does a masterful job of reminding us what a wild and wonderful time this was in many ways. So much happening, so much changing, so many advances in art and science. The list of authors in this song is stunning, as we realize that all these amazing writers all lived about the same time.

It makes me think of the musical theatre here in America, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when we had so many amazing artists working at the same time in the same place, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Jerry Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Kander and Ebb, Harnick and Bock, Jerry Herman, Stephen Schwartz, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber... you get the idea.

This list also suggests to us that the competition in London's theatre scene is fierce! So many masterful playwrights giving the public very high quality work, makes it hard for a marginally talented new voice like Bottom's to get noticed. Even worse for poor Nick, he realizes that Nigel is also a much better writer than he is.

So much of what's to come in our story is here in this seemingly goofy, seemingly traditional, musical comedy opening. The lyrics even sneak in the fact that the printing press was making literature available to the middle class for the first time. But it's done comically, as the lyric keeps demanding rhymes for renaissance. The ensemble sings:
Our printing press has the fancy fonts.
That's right, we're fancy,
And very literary, theatrical, too.
It's what we do.

Something Rotten! is a neo musical comedy like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, and others, so wacky and transgressive on the surface, that we don't notice the substance and craft underneath. It's such a joy to work on material this smart, this insightful, and this human. I love my job.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

P.S. Season tickets are on sale now, and single tickets will go on sale at the end of the month. For more info about the show, click here.

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.