Toxic Masculinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

GEORGES: I thought I said John Wayne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is Jean-Michel's mother.

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

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

I am what I am.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

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

La Cage aux Folles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes and no, both.

Like the whole show.

Like all of our lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of theatre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!

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

Fascinatin' Rhythm

When I wrote my history book, Strike Up the Band, I had two primary agendas. One was to reject the premise of all other musical theatre history books, that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was the pinnacle of the art form. It wasn't. The other agenda was to include in the story of our art form all the people of color, the women, the people with disabilities who helped shape the American musical theatre but get left out of almost all history books. I hope I did a decent job of re-balancing our story a little.

But the first draft of my book was about double the length they'd accept. I had to cut so much out of it, including a lot of early, little-known black shows. But I saved all that text. What really fascinated me was the musicals before the turn of the century. George M. Cohan essentially invented what we know as musical comedy in the first decade of the 20th century, with shows like Little Johnny Jones (1904); but there were shows before that, shows I guess I'd call proto-musicals, not exactly the form we know today, but something close.

And there were a lot of black shows!

As the 19th century ended, the first generation of African Americans born free in America finally was coming of age. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had invalidated the 1875 Civil Rights Act in 1883, and then had upheld the controversial idea of “separate but equal” for African Americans in 1896, still for a short while, anything was possible for black men in America, especially in the North. Many became doctors and lawyers, studied classical music with the best composers, and became great poets and novelists. The good times only lasted a while, but while they did, great things were accomplished. There wouldn’t be another time like it until the Harlem Renaissance.

And so in 1898, black performers finally joined the fun on Broadway with two all-Black musical comedies, A Trip to Coontown and Clorindy, The Origin of the Cakewalk. Of Clorindy, Bernard L. Peterson Jr. writes in A Century of Musicals in Black and White, “It was probably the first to fully exploit the possibilities of syncopated ragtime music in the theatre; the first to introduce the cakewalk (a staple of the minstrel stage) to sophisticated New York audiences; the first all-black show to play at a major Broadway theatre; and the first to have a white theatre orchestra led by a black conductor.”

In fact, more than thirty all-black shows were staged in Harlem and on Broadway between 1890 and 1915, and for a while some twenty blocks along Seventh Avenue in Manhattan was commonly known as “the African Broadway” because of the number of theatres housing all-black shows. In the first decade of the twentieth century, black men were buying theatres in various parts of the country, eventually forming a black touring circuit of their own.

The big break for Will Marion Cook and Laurence Dunbar’s Clorindy in 1898 is described by composer Will Marion Cook in his autobiography, and quoted by Thomas L. Riis in Just Before Jazz:
I went to see [producer] Ed Rice, and I saw him every day for a month. Regularly, after interviewing a room full of people he would say to me (I was always the last): “Who are you and what do you want?” On the thirty-first day – and by now I am so discouraged this is my last trip – I heard him tell a knockabout act: “Come up next Monday to rehearsal, do a show, and if you make good, I’ll have you on all week.”

I was desperate. On leaving Rice’s office, I went at once to the Greasy Front, a Negro club run by Charlie Moore, with a restaurant in the basement managed by Mrs. Moore. There I was sure to find a few members of my ensemble. I told them a most wonderful and welcome story: we were booked at the Casino Roof! That was probably the most beautiful lie I ever told.

On Monday morning, every man and woman, boy and girl that I had taught to sing my music was at the Casino Roof. Luckily for us, Ed Rice did not appear at rehearsal until very late that morning. By this time, my singers were grouped on the stage and I started the opening chorus. When I entered the orchestra pit, there only about fifty people on the Roof. When we finished the opening chorus, the house was packed to suffocation.

The show was booked.

Cook was born to college educated parents and studied music at Oberlin College in Berlin, and under the great composer Anton Dvořák at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. When his mother heard him working on the score for Clorindy, she came into the room with tears in her eyes. She said, “Oh Will, I’ve sent you all over the world to study and become a great musician, and you return such a nigger!” Like many other African Americans, she didn’t like the kind of “coon songs” Cook was writing, believing they denigrated the race and contributed to dangerous stereotypes that plagued African Americans. Despite the winning of the Civil War, lynchings continued in the South, the Civil Rights legislation passed after the Civil War was virtually ignored, and there was a major race riot in New York City in August 1900.

But Cook justified his work by noting that it got black men on Broadway for the first time. It was a debate that would go on for a century.

Blacks were finally on Broadway and, most important, not as minstrels and not in black face. Clorindy was the first show created and performed entirely by blacks in a mainstream theatre for an exclusively white audience. After Clorindy’s opening, Will Marion Cook exclaimed, “Negroes are at last on Broadway, and here to stay!”

Cook had not just put blacks on Broadway, he had also put syncopation into Broadway’s musical vocabulary for the first time, something that would distinguish musical comedy music from opera or operetta, forever separating the two, marking perhaps the most important musical moment in the history of Broadway. Cook would go on to write scores for many more all-black musicals over the next fifteen years, including In Dahomey (1903), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandanna Land (1908), which the Dramatic Mirror called “one of the rare plays that one feels like witnessing a second time.” Cook became widely regarded as the leader in black musical in America. his show The Southerners in 1904 was the first musical on Broadway with an integrated cast.

Bob Cole and Billy Johnson’s A Trip to Coontown not only boasted an all-black cast, but also Broadway’s first black producer, Bob Cole. The title a conscious reference to the very popular A Trip to Chinatown, the show told the story of a black con man who tries to con an older black man out of his $5,000 pension. The show was written in August 1897 and opened in New Jersey for a trial run, before going on tour and then moving to New York.

But the tour was no picnic. Because Cole and Johnson had defected from Black Patti’s Troubadours, that group’s white manager put Cole and Johnson through hell. He convinced black theatre owners around the country to boycott Coontown and convinced black performers that if they performed in Coontown they would be finished. So the show spent a year playing the worst, smallest theatres in the country, while the creators worked on the show. Still, when it came to New York in 1899, it had become such a hit, it suddenly was playing only the best theatres.

The story of Coontown was only barely important, and the show only marginally figures in the development of the American musical, except for the fact that it was the first musical produced, directed, written, and performed by blacks. And producer Cole, after only modest success with Coontown, was determined to push black musical comedy into new, unusual, and exciting places. The show’s program described it as “the Roaring, Racing, Rollicking Musical Comedy.” One Boston review called it, “far and away, the most satisfying extravaganza, white, black, or flushing pink, seen in Boston this season.”

Most people have never heard of these truly important artists, and that's a shame.

The more I researched our art form while writing my history book, the more I discovered people of color all throughout its history -- people and shows who are left out of almost every history book. My Strike Up the Band went pretty far in correcting that problem, but like I said, there was so much more I wanted to write about.

The first time my eyes got opened to the huge role in our history of artists of color, was when I first read Allen Woll's great 1989 book Black Musical Theatre, which I've now read three times over the years. Here are some other excellent books on this topic...

Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way by Stewart F. Lane

The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera by Ellen Noonan

Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'?: The Lives of an American Song by Todd Decker

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical by Todd Decker

Reminiscing with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake by Robert Kimball

Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Culture of Uplift, Identity, and Politics in Black Musical Theater by Paula Marie Seniors

They say of politics, if we forget history, we're doomed to repeat it. With theatre, it's more like, if we don't know -- and learn from -- our history, our artistic toolkit is only half full. And I can help.

Long Live the Musical!

A Hot Cup of Murder

One time, the Archbishop of St. Louis tried to shut down a New Line show called Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll. I'm not kidding. He failed. Well, he successfully shut down our preview, but we were open again for opening night. You can read about that here.

Our show was just a revue of theatre songs on those topics, three of the most powerful forces on humans, including songs from Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avenue Q, Songs for a New World, Hair, The Rocky Horror Show, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Naked Boys Singing, Company, Nine, I Love My Wife, Oklahoma!, The Last Five Years, Reefer Madness, No, No, Nanette, The Wild Party, and The Nervous Set. Sounds morally terrifying, doesn't it? Yet the Archdiocese was determined to shut us down. So bizarre.

More recently, a Christiany website tried to organize a form-letter campaign against our production of Jerry Springer the Opera (apparently they protest all productions of the show), but we only got 3 or 4 emails, and they were all identical. Some of the actors were afraid we'd have protesters at the theatre, but I knew these were the type who protested only if they could do it with one click.

Crazy shit, huh? But I can top both those stories, in terms of sheer weirdness.

One of our longtime New Liners, Colin DeVaughan, was working at Harrah's Casino in the early 2000s, and they were looking for events to bring in, that would attract busloads of seniors, who would then gamble the rest of the night. Colin told me about it and asked if we wanted to create something.

At first, I wasn't interested, but the more I thought about it, the more the idea of writing a murder-mystery-comedy intrigued me. So over the course of a few weeks, I wrote a (non-musical) comedy called "A Hot Cup of Murder." The script was recently published and you can get it on Amazon here.

Since we'd be performing the show in a banquet hall while people were eating, I set my show at a political fundraising dinner, where a rich guy named Preston Seaborn is launching a Senate campaign. But about ten minutes into the dinner, Preston drops dead in his entree, leaving his wife and bratty, 20-something kids to handle the awkward situation and unintentionally reveal all their worst impulses and secrets to the guests. And then a cop named Coffee shows up, with a mysterious past...

The cast included Colin, Mo Monahan, Robin Kelso, Troy Turnipseed, and Troy Schnider. We had a lot of fun with it.

We did the first performance at Harrah's and, despite the incredibly crazy, twisting story, the full house of seniors laughed at all the jokes, gasped at revelations, and had a really great time. We even got a standing ovation. We felt great about it.

Now here's the crazy part...

All the other planned performances were then cancelled. After all the work we'd done. No explanation. And we didn't get paid nearly what we had been promised.

Then a few months ago, I stumbled onto a website for "Parents of Murdered Children Inc.," which sends out "Murder Is Not Entertainment (MINE) Alerts" (not kidding), and on one page of the site, it had a list of their protests, and one item said:
January, 2001
Harrah's Casino
POMC was successful in protesting Hot Cup of Murder, a murder mystery hosted by Harrah's Casino.

I could barely believe it. Our little comedy was shut down by protesters!

And it made me wonder, do these folks protest every play or movie with murder in it? Or even every comic play or movie with murder in it? When would they sleep...? The truth is: murder is entertainment. Sophocles and Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle and the writers of Murder, She Wrote all knew that. Oh yeah, and the Bible.

Their website says, "POMC makes the difference through on-going emotional support, education, prevention, advocacy, and awareness. POMC Vision Statement: To provide support and assistance to all survivors of homicide victims while working to create a world free of murder."

"Support and assistance" by telling everybody else what stories we're allowed to tell? While I have sympathy for parents of murdered children -- who wouldn't? -- how does this make sense? How does shutting down our play make any of those parents feel better or replace the terrible hole left in their lives?

That's easy -- it doesn't.

Just another example of people trying desperately to control strangers. It's so baffling to me. It's rare we've had issues like this, but it still happens and it will happen again. America is not past that kind of silliness quite yet.

To be clear, there were no children in our play and certainly no children murdered. And also, there are a shit-ton of movies, plays, TV shows and novels about murder, many of them dark comedies. I have a weird feeling that the operators of POMC are taking advantage of grief-stricken parents for their own agenda of trying to control the expression of others. That's pretty fucked up.

Though not entirely surprising in the Trump Era, sadly. That's okay. Imagine how all those folks' heads would explode if they'd ever see Bukowsical, Wild Party, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson... We'll always get the last laugh, because we're the ones who make the art, and it's the art that gets remembered.

Long Live Uncensored Uncontrolled Theatre!

Broadway Hot Damn!

I am in love with the BroadwayHD channel on Amazon Prime Video. I'm convinced that HD stands for Hot Damn!

When we were working on Yeast Nation, last summer, Greg Kotis told me that he and Mark Hollmann had based their story loosely on both Macbeth and Antigone. So I watched both plays on video, and it helped me a lot with Yeast Nation.

And then I wanted to see the rest of the Oedipus trilogy, which includes Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. One way to see them was to subscribe to the BroadwayHD channel. So I did, and I felt like Dorothy walking out of her sepia-toned house into the Technicolor of Oz. Suddenly, I had tons of theatre available to me, from the earliest plays that exist, up to the latest Broadway offerings.

If you've never seen it, I can't recommend these three plays enough. I set out to watch them more out of historical curiosity, but I fell in love with all three plays. Anybody who loves great theatre should watch all three, but make sure it's the 1986 BBC versions, translated and directed by Don Taylor, starring Michael Pennington as Oedipus, Claire Bloom as Jocasta, John Gielgud as Tiresias, and Juliet Stevenson as Antigone. Talk about powerful, compelling theatre!

Then, after watching the trilogy, watch The Gospel at Colonus, which is also on BroadwayHD, with Morgan Freeman. The Gospel at Colonus takes the story of Oedipus at Colonus and tells it in the form of a Baptist church service. It's brilliant.

I planned to subscribe only temporarily, but I'm hooked. I've already watched a bunch of my bucket list plays, like Hedda Gabler, A Doll's House, School for Scandal, "Tis Pity She's a Whore, Buried Child, Present Laughter, and others. And I have dozens still to go. There's a ton of Shakespeare (I can finally see King John!), but there's also so much more... Here's just a partial list...

Paula Vogel's Indecent
Noel Coward's Present Laughter
Rhinoceros (with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel!)
Ah, Wilderness!
Long Day's Journey into Night
Man Who Came to Dinner
Buried Child
A Touch of the Poet
Three Sisters
Hedda Gabler
"Tis Pity She's a Whore
School for Scandal
The Misanthrope
The Iceman Cometh
The Norman Conquests

And there are a lot of musicals, as well...

American in Paris
Holiday Inn
Billy Eilliot
She Loves Me
From Here to Eternity
Sweeney Todd
Gypsy (Bette Midler AND Imelda Staunton)
Toxic Avenger
Jerry Springer the Opera
Kiss Me, Kate
JC Superstar
Jekyll & Hyde
Wind in the Willows
Sophisticated Ladies

I used to laugh at myself, because I have Charter on Demand, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and a huge DVD collection, and yet sometimes I just cannot find something I want to watch.  But that never happens anymore because now there are always a few dozen plays and musicals waiting for me...

And really, what could be better than that?

Long Live the Musical!

Into the Words

When young musical theatre artists ask me how to get where they're going, I always give the same advice, to consume as much musical theatre as humanly possible, to see every musical (live and on screen) that they can, read scripts and biographies and history books and analysis books, listen to cast albums -- and not just the new ones.

In other words, drink all of it in. And part of that is creating a good library for yourself.

I was browsing my own considerable musical theatre script library, and though there are lots of photocopied scripts and "lost" rental scripts (shhh, don't tell anybody), it's surprising how many musical theatre scripts get published. Of course, with some exceptions (like Sondheim), it's only the most famous, most commercial shows that get published. But it's happening more now than it has since the 60s and 70s.

I noticed I have several really nice published collections of musical theatre scripts in my library, so I thought it would be worth blogging about them. So many young musical theatre fans can start a decent script library without spending too much time or money (if you get these used on Amazon!).

Great Musicals of the American Theatre, in two volumes 
Volume One includes Of Thee I Sing, Porgy and Bess, One Touch of Venus, Brigadoon, Kiss Me Kate, West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, 1776, and Company.
Volume Two includes Leave It to Me, Lady in the Dark, Lost in the Stars, Wonderful Town, Fiorello!, Camelot, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, Applause, and A Little Night Music.
Both volumes are out of print, but you can get used copies pretty cheap on Amazon.

American Musicals, in two volumes or boxed set 
1927-1949 includes Show Boat, As Thousands Cheer, Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, On the Town, Finian's Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, and South Pacific.
1950-1969 includes Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and 1776.

Great Rock Musicals
Includes The Wiz, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, Your Own Thing, Hair, Tommy, and Promenade.

The New York Musicals of Comden and Green
Includes On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Bells Are Ringing

The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, vol. 1
Includes Promises, Promises (as well as several plays)
The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, vol. 2
Includes Little Me (as well as several plays)
The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, vol. 3
Includes They're Playing Our Song and Sweet Charity (as well as several plays)

The New American Musical
Includes Floyd Collins, Rent, Parade, and Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's version of The Wild Party.

Collect all these collections, most or all of which you can get really cheap and in good condition, buying them used on Amazon. (I get most of my books that way.) And then you'll have a great variety of works through which to study and get to know our art form. Believe me, read all these scripts and you will understand the history and evolution of the American musical theatre.

And then you can buy all my analysis books and dig even deeper into these fascinating shows and our fascinating history.

Pretty cool that it's that easy, no? So get reading!

Long Live the Musical!

Broadway Pop!

I have fallen in love with Funko Pops figures -- they're so odd but so wonderful. In recent months, Funko has released several Little Shop of Horrors figures, as well as two versions of both Danny and Sandy in Grease, and big collections of figures from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

But wait, there's more! I was fortunate enough to happen upon Amanda Tang's Broadway Pop store on Etsy, and it was like I had died and gone to musical theatre memorabilia heaven. She has custom Funko Pops for Hamilton, Newsies, Wicked, Book of Mormon, Phantom of the Opera...

But it gets even better. You can commission special orders from her! Would anyone really think I could have that information and not act on it? I couldn't help myself. So I asked Amanda to create a trio of figures for me, Billy Crocker, Reno Sweeney, and Moonface Martin, in the original 1934 Anything Goes. See the photo above to see how cool they turned out! Amanda is totally open to suggestions...

About the same time, I discovered the very cool work of Brian Reedy, brother to New Line's resident graphic artists, Matt Reedy, who's been designing all the New Line posters since 2006. That family clearly has good artsy genes. Brian's already made a Hamilton woodcut, and an Audrey II linocut, both incredibly cool and both for sale in Brian's Etsy store.

(Brian says he'd be open to doing more musical theatre designs...)

Having found both these artists, I've been thinking about all the ways my artist friends could make money creating musical theatre related merchandise. There's already a ton of it on Etsy, though most of that is uninspired. And there's a large, easy-to-target fan base eager for cool stuff like that. That fan base probably skews younger (which is good for the art form!), but it also includes people my age.

I started thinking of all the musical theatre characters that would make excellent Funko Pops or linocuts. To work, the character needs a pretty distinctive, iconic look, that translates clearly into these different, necessarily simpler forms. And that made me think about what characters in musical theatre have a look that transcends the original actor who played the role -- or in some cases, characters whose look was set forever by the original actor.

For instance, even with the simple, almost expressionless faces of the Pops, a red sequined dress and red feathered headdress are unmistakably Dolly Levi, at that one specific moment, coming down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens during the intro to the title song. The same is true of Cassie's red rehearsal clothes, Mame's gold jumpsuit and short haircut, Mrs. Lovett's bizarre side curls...

Once I started thinking about this, I couldn't stop. Imagine Pops and/or linocuts, and/or whatever other things we can dream up, depicting...

Dolly Levi (in the red dress!)
     In a set of three! Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, and Streisand (in gold)! Maybe also Bette?

Lola from Kinky Boots

Evan Hanson from Dear Evan Hansen

Zaza (and Albin?) from La Cage aux Folles

Ti Moune from Once on This Island

Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof

Don Quixote from Man of La Mancha

Stew from Passing Strange

Mame Dennis from Mame (in the gold jumpsuit!)

Cassie from A Chorus Line

Princess Winifred from Once Upon a Mattress

Charity Hope Valentine from Sweet Charity

Pres. Jackson from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Ethel Merman, as a career-spanning set
     Including Reno in Anything Goes, Annie in Annie Get Your Gun, and Rose in Gypsy

Chita Rivera, as a career-spanning set
     Including Anita in West Side Story, Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, Velma in Chicago, and the Spider Women in Kiss of the Spider Woman

Porgy and Bess from Porgy and Bess

Jeremy, Michael, and the Squip from Be More Chill

Tracy and Edna Turnblad from Hairsprayy

Mother and Coalhouse Walker Jr. from Ragtime

Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady

Prof. Harold Hill and Marian the Librarian from The Music Man

Rev. Purlie and Lutiebelle from Purlie

Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd

Elphaba and Glinda from Wicked

Hedwig and Yitzhak from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

J. Pierpont Finch and JB Biggley (and Rosemary?) from How To Succeed in Business...

Sally Bowles and the Emcee (and Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz?) from Cabaret
     Do two sets -- the original 1966 look AND the 1990s revival look

Berger, Claude, and Hud from Hair

Laurie, Curly, and Jud from Oklahoma!

Anna and the King from The King and I

Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart from Chicago

Capt. Macheath, and Mr. & Mrs. Peachum from Threepenny
     Not sure which version... the original 1928 Berlin production? The famous 1950s off Broadway production? The sexy 1970s Public Theatre production...?

The whole cast of the original Fantasticks

The three (four?) Dreamgirls

The whole cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

All the leads from Spring Awakening

All the leads from In the Heights

All seven leads from Rent

All the leads from Avenue Q

All the leads from Into the Woods

I could keep going. For a long time. But I won't. I'm sure by now you have a dozen in your head that you can't believe I left off my list. I feel your pain.

But also, I'm thinking, how much would I (and you) LOVE Pops and linocuts of Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bill Finn, Pasek and Paul, Joe Iconis, Kander and Ebb, and sure, why not, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Although personally, I'd love to have a Rodgers and Hart set! And while I'm on a roll, also Hal Prince, Tommy Tune, Bob Fosse, George C. Wolfe, Michael Bennett, Susan Stroman, Michael Mayer, Michael Greif, George Abbott, George M. Cohan...

Just think of the thousands of dollars I could blow if all of these were available. Maybe this post isn't such a good idea after all...

I'll just leave it there for now... But stop by and see Amanda and Brian and their cool work...!

Long Live the Musical!

Thank You, St. Louis!

I know 2018 was a rough one in many ways, but in my position as artsy-cynic-optimist, I can't help but see a lot of awesomeness in 2018.

What a year of New Line shows! One of my most loved shows, the classic Anything Goes; the wild, new(-ish) rock musical Yeast Nation (from the Urinetown team); and my own Zombies of Penzance. Wow, talk about variety!

So many people came up to me after Anything Goes performances, saying some version of, "This has always been one of my favorite shows, but I didn't know it was so funny!" That always made me laugh. But I think it revealed something important about New Line -- we took the show seriously, its characters and plot, its themes, its satire; and what we revealed to our audiences was only what had always been there. The other secret that many directors miss -- a comedy like this is meant to keep the audience off balance, so you can't ever give them a moment to catch their breath or process the insanity before them. It was overwhelming, in all the best ways. And it was hilarious.

And Yeast Nation... well, doesn't the title say it all? I was so happy that audiences and critics embraced this crazy show, its political intrigue and social satire. We had so much fun working on this, and then Greg Kotis, one of the show's writers came to see us -- and he paid us the most amazing compliment. He said to me, "This production has really renewed my faith in the material."

Could we get a nicer compliment from a show's writer...?

And then, my beloved zombies. You have to understand, I love zombie movies, and also, I love Gilbert and Sullivan. So when the idea occurred to me in 2013, through a stoner's haze, to mashup the two forms, I knew that was something I wanted to work on.

I worked for five years, off and on, writing The Zombies of Penzance. Contrary to what some assumed, it's not just a sophomoric joke; as wacky as it is, it's a serious piece of writing. Just as The Pirates of Penzance is a sharp satire of the British class system, in a parallel way, The Zombies of Penzance is a satire of the Othering -- the cultural and political excluding -- of many, many Americans today, often practiced through a morally hazy film of faux Christian values. When I replaced pirates with zombies, replacing metaphorical monsters with actual monsters, it had far-reaching narrative ramifications, even though the larger arc of the story remained pretty much intact.

Part of the appeal of the project to me was the experiment, the fundamental mismatch of content and form that is the central joke of the show. It's a zombie apocalypse story told in the form of wacky, English light opera. And there was also the basic massive challenge of rewriting a Gilbert and Sullivan show, which I love deeply, and to make sure I was retaining Gilbert's voice. The response from audience and critics tells me I did that pretty well.

After five years, it all blossomed in 2018. We did a public reading of The Zombies of Penzance in January, and to my great surprise, we had a packed house. The amazing Sarah Nelson music directed the reading for us, the cast did a really great job with it, and the audience LOVED it. They were fully engaged with the story and characters, even though it was just a reading, with the actors holding their scores. It was so encouraging!

We had a talk-back with the audience after the reading, and I learned a lot. I was happy to find that they could easily follow the revised plot, and they understood the silly logic of the story's resolution. But I also discovered that not everybody sees zombie movies. I had assumed the audience would know the basic rules of zombism, just like everybody knows the basic rules of vampirism. But that assumption was wrong. So I addressed that in my rewrites.

Also, a few women said to me afterward, half-joking, half-not, "Couldn't the women win?" And I thought, "Yeah, why couldn't they?" So I rewrote the end, so it's the daughters who outsmart the zombies. I did a ton of rewrites, mostly small things, but also a few big things, like adding one song and greatly expanding another.

One of the biggest lessons the reading taught me -- every time I had inserted a Joke, it was less funny than the dialogue and lyrics around it. I realized I shouldn't be inserting jokes, just telling the story, because that's already funny enough. Almost all the jokes I had stuck in got removed. The only ones that stayed were jokes that came from character.

My friend and partner in crime John Gerdes meanwhile had been orchestrating the show, and had created a piano-vocal score for us to use for the reading. So after all my rewrites were done, I passed it all back to John, so he could incorporate my changes, and finish it all, write an overture, etc.

We produced the show fully in October, and again, the response was so wonderful. Sarah Nelson had moved to New York, so Nic Valdez took over as music director, and all but two of the actors returned. The reviews were raves, the laughs were huge, and everybody walked out smiling or laughing. The actors and band had a great time, all our designers did really cool work, and everything turned out exactly as I had hoped.

AND THEN... we ended up publishing the script and full piano-vocal score on Amazon! And our sound designer Ryan Day asked if he could try making a live, high-quality audio recording of the show. He did, and now we've released a really great live cast album on CD (also on Amazon). It will be on the streaming services soon.

AND THEN... we started getting inquiries about production rights. There's nothing settled yet in that area, but it looks likely that there will be further productions of our show!

And if all that isn't cool enough, while we were running Zombies, I started writing my next fake Gilbert and Sullivan show, and I finished a first draft, much to my own astonishment, before the end of the year. It's really fucked up. I'll let it sit for a while now before digging back in. If all goes as planned, we'll be doing a public reading of this one in January 2021, and then producing it in our 2021-2022 season. Stay tuned...

This was also the year I published my latest collection of analysis essays, Literally Anything Goes: 14 Great Oddball Musicals And What Makes Them Tick, and a novelty book I had been working on for several years, It's a Musical!: 400 Questions to Ponder, Discuss, and Fight About. I also published several scripts and scores I've written. (You can see them all on my Amazon Author Page.)

All in all, 2018 was a really scary year for our country, but a pretty great year for me artistically. And 2019 looks like it will be just as cool...

Thank you to everybody I worked with last year, and everybody who supports New Line. I am truly living the dream. Though it would also be nice to be able to pay my bills...

Oh well, you can't have everything.

Long Live the Musical! And Happy New Year!

'Twas a Year Full of New Line 2018

'Twas a year full of New Line, rambunctious and swell,
And the New Liners kept themselves busy as hell:
A reading, a classic, a new show, and then,
An old show that substitutes zombies for men.
The new shows were cool, and the old shows seemed new,
A year full of crazy surprises for you,
'Cause that is exactly what New Liners do.

The year started off with a reading, one night
Of a Gilbert and Sullivan cheeky rewrite,
With zombies and daughters (as hunters of such);
And response was so warm and it cheered us so much!
The feedback was helpful, and rewrites ensued,
To strengthen the women (though they remained "food"),
Resulting in opera deliciously rude.

In spring we launched Cole Porter's Anything Goes,
A show that we proved hardly anyone knows;
We merely let loose all the rich social satire,
Freeing what drives this convention defier;
Darker and wilder, and funnier too,
Not quite the show that most folks thought they knew;
But our secret is simple -- we show you what's true.

Our next show did not depict humans or beasts,
But focused on intrigue and love among yeasts,
Who lived microscopic, but yearned for much more
(Like power and sex) on the deep ocean floor.
A canvas surprisingly complex and vast,
And tellingly human (though more protoplast),
And just a few billion years back in the past.

And then we returned to our wild "zomberetta,"
Of ghoul-hunting daughters and zombie vendetta;
Response was much warmer than we'd ever dreamed
(Though Gilbert and Sullivan sure would have screamed).
Our zombies could sing and (a bit) they could dance;
The idea was full crazy, but we took a chance
On the dreaded but comic Zombies of Penzance!

And now there's a Zombies cast album, full score,
Plus the script, so our dead are "preserved," and what's more,
You can purchase these things on the Amazon site,
And then re-live our Zombies (if "re-live" is right),
And laugh your ass off, but get no sleep that night;
Nah, the zombies will pass by your house... well, they might...

So now we look forward to 2019,
A singing computer chip, aging drag queen;
Two tales of outsiders (and some Mountain Dew),
And both with the lesson to be the true you.
Yeah, Be More Chill opens on Broadway this spring,
But we still have a Be More Chill June opening!
We rock, and that's why -- it's a New Liner thing.

Happy Holidays! Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're a glutton for punishment, here are my year-end poems from 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

What's That Playing On the Radio?

It hurts me when people disparage Grease. Party because I love it dearly (and have done it three times!), and partly because almost everyone -- including people who love it -- underestimate both the show's authenticity and the writing craft.

It's so much better and darker and smarter and subtler than you think.

Many people scoff, but it's true -- the score of Grease is remarkable in its craft and authenticity, even referencing actual songs of the period. Many of the actual period songs that influenced the Grease score were not chart toppers, because the Grease kids didn’t always listen to the most popular music; they were more musically and culturally adventurous than that. They listened to songs you could only hear late night on Alan Freed’s radio show, “race songs,” dirty songs, songs that scared adults.

But it’s important to note that the songs of Grease differ from real rock and roll songs in one significant way. The lyrics to real 50s rock and roll songs were the least important element of the song, often just dummy lyrics used as a vehicle for the artists’ personal vocal stylings, or for sophisticated harmonies or melodic ornaments. As in rhythm and blues, one of rock and roll’s parents, a song didn’t have to convey information, just style and emotion, most of which was delivered through the abstract language of music. But theatre songs have to convey a lot of information or the show won’t work (which is why it was such a mistake to put a real 50s song into the 1994 revival). Because sung lyrics take more time than spoken dialogue, musicals have to do a lot of storytelling in fewer words than a play.

So in Grease, “Summer Nights” lays out the central backstory, as well as characterizing most of the two gangs through their pointed questions. “Magic Changes” and “Rock and Roll Party Queen” lay out and explore the show’s central themes: Sex; Drive-ins and Sex; and Rock and Roll and Sex; Most of the girls’ songs provide psychological character details – Marty and Rizzo’s cynical view of love in “Freddy My Love” and “Worse Things;” the friction between Rizzo and Sandy in “Sandra Dee” – but we also find commentary on 50s sexuality in “Greased Lightning,” “Mooning,” “Drive-In Movie,” and of course “Worse Things.”

Every lyric contributes to the agenda of this deceptively sophisticated concept musical.

Grease opens with an authentically and properly bland “Alma Mater,” the sound of the adult world, of authority, complete with archaic language (like foretell, hovel, and thou shalt) which then is ripped apart, deconstructed, unexpectedly exploding, invoking “Johnny B. Goode,” as well as that audacious rejection of adult culture, “Roll Over Beethoven.” Like Berry’s “School Day,” the raunchy parody “Alma Mater” is an assault, a declaration of culture war, a defiant fuck-you to the adult world, as the Greasers literally steal away the adults’ anthem, give it a driving beat, and twist it to suit their own purposes.

And so Grease is off and running. This will not be a nice show, a tame show, a traditional show, the music tells us. This will be aggressive, even obnoxious. This will be rock and roll theatre.

We move into the second scene and “Summer Nights,” the introduction of two of the leads and their central plotline, inspired by real rock songs like Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Don’t You Just Know It?”, a song released in 1958 as the Rydell kids were starting their senior year. “Summer Nights” introduces the ten main characters, allowing each of them to ask questions that reveal their characters. Marty wants to know if this guy has a car, while Frenchy only wants to know if Sandy’s in love. Kenickie wants to know if the sex was rough, while Sonny only wants to know if the girl could fix him up with a friend. We see here and in the scene leading up to the song who each of the ten leads are – Kenickie and Rizzo, both damaged, beaten down, angry young adults; Roger, the clown; Jan, the cynic; Doody and Frenchy, the innocents; Sonny, the “dangerous” one; and Marty, the Material Girl.

And the song also establishes the central conflict of Grease and of the 1950s, that Danny is comfortable with sexuality while Sandy is lost – trapped? – in the fantasy of Perfect Love, thanks to the likes of Sandra Dee, Dee's handlers, and the movie studios (which were losing all their previous power, due in part to the burgeoning teen market).

Some sources report that Rizzo’s dismissal of Sandy’s tale, “Cause he sounds like a drag,” was originally written, “Cause he sounds like a fag.” It’s certainly plausible, since Sandy describes a boy who barely touches her all summer, and in Rizzo’s world, that might well mean the boy is gay (or at least it would be a solid, cynical put-down of Sandy’s romantic story). After "Summer Nights," Rizzo suggests Sandy’s summer lover may be “a fairy.”

Now that the characters are established and the story is underway, Grease takes a moment with “Those Magic Changes” to explore the show’s central themes, to underline the importance and centrality of music in this story and also in the show’s social commentary. Closely based on Paul Anka’s “Diana” and its distinctive bass line (you can actually sing “Magic Changes” to “Diana”), it also includes those distinctive falsettos vocal ornaments that pay homage to songs like The Diamonds’ comic doo-wop hit, “Lil Darlin’.” Doody starts off solo, then the girls join in, then the boys join in, then two of the boys take off on those falsetto riffs, giving the whole song the tang of improvisation, as if these kids are just fooling around between classes. This is part of what gives Grease -- in its original incarnation -- such a unique feel as a musical.

"Magic Changes" is a song that connects love – but also sex in the form of the “magic changes” of puberty – to rock and roll. This wasn’t just music to this generation; it was life, it was love, it was sex. They charted their lives to the songs on the radio, the song they fell in love to, the song they first had sex to. And as “Magic Changes” reminds us, every 50s song is every other 50s song, since so many of them used those exact same chord changes, a chord progression seemingly invented just for them (though really coming from rhythm and blues). At that early moment in rock's evolution, it seems that all of rock and roll is “those magic changes” that Doody dreams of returning to him every night.

The idea that all you need is a guitar to be a rock and roll star (perhaps in tribute to Bobby Bare’s satirical 1958 Elvis song, “All-American Boy,” (which was also referenced in Bye Bye Birdie) was a deeply ingrained part of teen culture.

The next song in Grease, “Freddy My Love” is the show’s female doo-wop number, with a lead melody and rich harmonic back-up, closely based on “Eddie My Love” by The Tea Queens, while also slyly parodying The Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday” and Ronnie Spector’s “Be My Baby,” reinforcing old female stereotypes while also undermining and revising them. The driving triplet accompaniment here was a common beat in early rock and roll, introduced by Fats Domino for “Every Night About This Time.” They’re living in the 1950s, but these are women of the 60s. The idea of the other girls becoming back up singers for Marty shows us how much they love the girl doo-wop groups, a new phenomenon at that moment, which would become huge in the 60s. The Ronettes were the first “slutty” girl group to make it big singing rock and roll. They were what these girls wanted to be (to get the guys) and what the guys dreamed about getting. “Freddy, My Love” is a song about early feminism, about women being sexual and aggressive. But it’s also about the materialism of the 1950s, a mindset in which money is as good as (better than?) sex, and gifts are the only true measure of love. The idea of Marty singing to a guy stationed in Korea references the fact that Elvis was still in the Army overseas at this point, a sad fact for many teenagers.

“Greased Lightning” combines two of the three major cultural forces of the 50s, cars and rock and roll. Possibly inspired by The Cadillacs’ cocky “Speedo,” or Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” this is a companion piece to “Freddy My Love.” This is the guys’ perspective in the language of doo-wop: it’s all about sex, cars, and sex in cars. An article on describes the provocative, lusty Chuck Berry, duckwalking through “You Can't Catch Me,” in the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock: “…his guitar as phallic looking a stage prop as anything seen on the screen this side of the bananas in a Carmen Miranda production number. Had a Black man ever before been permitted such a degree of sexual expression (and you can see the delightful, proud smugness on Berry's face, knowing what audience the movie was aimed at) in a movie intended for white audiences?”

This is the unfettered sexuality that terrifies the 1950s adult world, and it does the same to Sandy.

“Greased Lightning” is about America’s love affair with cars and teenagers’ love of speed. According to Rolling Stones’ excellent history Rock of Ages, “American automakers were asserting their products’ virtues of speed and power, turning the 1957 models into rocketship fantasies with nose cones, chrome grills, and razor sharp fins.” This song is not just a catalog of car accessories, but instead a real insight into the dreams of these guys. After all, this is not a real car Kenickie’s singing about, but an unreachable fantasy car (which is why it may be better if we don’t actually see the dream car onstage), the ultimate, luxury, high-performance, drag racing car, with high-priced accessories for speed and performance (lifters, fins, fuel injection), and also for automotive sex appeal (palomino dashboard, purple frenched tail lights, twin tail pipes). And it’s clear from the details that this will be a car intended for drag racing, the gladiator sport of 1950s teenagers, an extreme and dangerous sport pitting one man against one man, in what was sometimes a battle to actual death. (Kenickie acknowledges this danger, and even knows how to diminish it with a fuel-injection cut-off, which stops the flow of gasoline in the event of a crash, in order to lower the danger of an explosion.) Drag racing was illegal, sometimes deadly… and really sexy! Skill and success in drag racing could always get a guy laid, as Kenickie well knows (or at least imagines).

But the song also tells us that Kenickie doesn’t really know much about drag racing or about customizing cars. A true drag racing enthusiast knows that the accessories Kenickie dreams of don’t all make sense together. For example, the “four-barrel quads” refers to a carburetor, but a car with fuel injection (as in his “fuel injection cut-off”) doesn’t have a carburetor – those two things would not be on the same car. And no one would chrome-plate connecting rods; chrome-plating was just for show and nobody can see connecting rods on a car. And though palomino leather was popular for car interiors, no one would put palomino leather on a dashboard. Finally, a kid in 1959 would either make his car look good or go fast; no kid had the money to do both (although you could argue that this is just a fantasy). In fact, a drag car that looked too good was the sure sign of a driver who wasn’t really serious about racing.

It’s safe to assume that Kenickie probably knows very little about cars or drag racing, which gives this lyric far more complexity, humor, and character detail than it seems.

The last scene of Act I is set in a park late on a Friday night, where the kids have gathered to hang out, drink, smoke, and neck. Because the scene is one of the longest in the show, it’s also a prime example of the supreme, nearly invisible craft in the writing of the show’s dialogue. The script of Grease isn’t just a catalog of period references and influences; it’s also a carefully constructed ensemble character piece, revealing so much about all the main characters, usually subtextually.

As an example, when Roger calls Jan “Petunia Pig,” she shoots back with “Oh yeah? Right here, Lardass!” This seemingly trivial throwaway line tells us so much about Jan: that she’s always been overweight (or at least for much of her life), that she’s regularly picked on, that she’s sensitive about her weight, and most importantly, that over time she has learned to defend herself, to give as good as she gets. A girl who is never mocked about her weight would not be that fierce in her comeback. All this is confirmed later in the scene when Roger asks Jan to the dance and she responds, “You kiddin’, Rog?” Her suspicious reply tells us that either guys never ask her out or maybe guys have asked her out in the past only as a cruel joke of some kind. She has to be reassured by Roger that he really wants to go out with her before she agrees.

There’s lots going on with her under the surface, and the same is true of every one of the main characters.

Roger and Jan’s song “Mooning” may have been inspired by The Mello-Kings’ “Tonight, Tonight” or The Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You,” and though the other songs in Grease proclaim a new worldview of sex and love, this one also trashes the old worldview, reducing the tepid moon-spoon-June romance of the 30s and 40s to silly anachronism. It contrasts love today (1959) with love yesterday (their parents’), the physical versus the romantic, the play between the old definition of mooning as an over-sentimentalizing of young love, and the new definition of mooning as the act of baring one’s ass. Like “Summer Nights,” this is a song about the difference between chaste love and carnal love, the love Sandra Dee falls into versus the more physical love of naked, sweaty bodies. But this song goes further, into wickedly funny social satire; “Summer Nights” is about two kids, but “Mooning” is about the whole generation. And for Jan, this is safe sexuality, vaguely explicit, but also safely not serious.

As a companion piece to “Mooning,” Rizzo makes the comparison more personal with “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” an assault on Sandy’s false role models, a shot across the bow, making certain that Sandy knows that Rizzo knows that it’s all bullshit. The music is a classic, brilliantly imitative 1950s novelty song, with a meter and an introduction lovingly ripped off from David Seville’s “The Chipmunk Song,” the surprise hit of the 1958 Christmas season. But the laughs get even darker when you realize that every male movie star mentioned in the lyric was a closeted gay man, forced to live a lie by his studio. This is a song about sexual repression, false lives, and false role models, and it’s proof that Rizzo knows more than we thought, that she has genuine insight into the world around her. And this peek into her mind allows her to carry the weighty “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” later in Act II.

The act ends with “We Go Together,” an archetypal Happy Teenager song, very closely modeled on The Kodaks’ “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh” and Lewis Lyman’s “I’m So Happy,” maybe with a little dash of Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti.” (You can actually sing “We Go Together” to both “I’m So Happy” and “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh.”) This is a song celebrating the nonsense syllables of early rock and roll, songs like “Gee” (The Crows), “Bip Bam” (The Drifters), “Oop Shoop,” (The Queens), “Sh-Boom” and “Zippity Zum” (both by The Chords).

(Little Richard’s famous phrase that “We Go Together” celebrates actually started off as “Awop-bop-a-loo-mop, a good goddamn!”, followed by “Tutti Fruiti, good booty…” It was later cleaned up.)

But the lyric of "We Go Together" succeeds as more than just send-up; it is also an articulation and celebration of this created family that nurtures and protects these kids, an artificial but also very real family that has through necessity replaced their dysfunctional, possibly abusive birth families. It is this family at the heart of the show’s plot which must survive the difficulties and obstacles of teenage life, and also which must be sustained even as its leader attempts to create a relationship outside the family for the first time. This lyric tells us – and these kids are telling each other – that these Ties That Bind are indeed strong enough to withstand the current conflicts, and the song’s reprise at the end of the show reminds us of the importance of that strength for these kids. Perhaps it was also telling audiences in 1972 that those ties will also get them through the cultural chaos of the 1970s, a theme picked up in the 1977 musical I Love My Wife.

And that's just Act I.

Act II picks up where Act I left off, with “Shakin’ at the High School Hop,” a loving tribute to Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy,” as well as many other legendary songs, like “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” (Big Joe Turner, then Elvis, and others), “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (Jerry Lee Lewis), “High School Confidential” (Jerry Lee Lewis), and “At the Hop” (Danny and the Juniors). The song’s introductory chords come from Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” And “High School Confidential” actually contains the lyric, “Shakin’ at the high school hop…” There’s also be a touch of Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash,” a song which references other early rock and roll songs, just as “High School Hop” catalogues the dances of the time, including The Chicken, The Stroll, The Shimmy, The Cha-Cha, The Walk, The Hully-Gully, The Hand Jive, The Stomp, The Calypso, The Slop, and The Bop. It also names several songs of the period, including “Alley Oop” and “Mr. Lee,” among others.

“It’s Raining on Prom Night” is a Connie Francis number, combining attributes from several of her “weeper” songs, including “Frankie” (with a spoken section), “Valentino,” “Carolina Moon,” and “Happy Days and Lonely Nights,” among others. The Latin beat recalls her fondness for recording Italian language ballads like the hit “Mama;” and “Frankie” even contains the idea of hiding tears, that later shows up in “Worse Things I Could Do.” "Prom Night" also has echoes of The Diamonds’ “Little Darlin’,” with its Latin beat and one spoken verse.

According to some sources, this was the first Grease song Jacobs and Casey wrote, even before they had conceived the show, satirically putting the trivial and mundane at the center of a big, emotional lament. Far more than any other song in the score, this is parody more than tribute or invocation. And its sly reference to Maidenform bras recalls that brand’s long-standing ad campaigns that associated their bras with various female fantasy situations, like a romance novel in a magazine ad. Surely for the singer (or listener) of this song, the prom was a romantic fantasy as potent as any other.

The Prom Scene is the centerpiece of Act II and, not surprisingly, almost the entire scene is accompanied by dance music. This is a scene that’s entirely about the rock and roll. And the centerpiece of the scene is “Born to Hand Jive,” with its now universally famous choreography. The Hand Jive was invented for the Johnny Otis song, “Willie and the Hand Jive,” which hit the charts in 1958 and stayed in the Top Ten for sixteen weeks. This “Hand Jive” also takes inspiration (and its bass line) from Bo Diddley’s self-titled song, “Bo Diddley,” with its famous beat (the “hambone”) that would accompany so many of Diddley’s songs. The beat is relentless, dangerous, wild abandon, the beat of sex. Once again, rock and roll is sex.

Johnny Casino and the Gamblers are an example of the thousands of garage bands that appeared in the 50s. The lyric of “Hand Jive” clearly tells us that anyone can be a rock star if they’ve got the Beat in them, and the fact that everyone knows how to Hand Jive means everyone has the Beat. This was the beginning of the democratization of pop music that would continue into the 60s.

Grace Palladino writes in her book, Teenagers: An American History, “If unremarkable kids like Dion Di Mucci and his group, the Belmonts, who hailed from the Bronx, could make it on American Bandstand, [teenagers] reasoned, then anyone with talent and determination had the same chance to succeed.”

“Beauty School Dropout,” Frenchy’s wacky nightmare of the misogynist mainstream “real world,” was inspired (musically) by songs like The Penguins’ classic “Earth Angel.” But this scene also references the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor, with Debbie Reynolds. Just before “Beauty School Dropout” starts, Frenchy wishes for a guardian angel “like in that Debbie Reynolds movie.” In the film, Aunt Renie (Mildred Natwick) plays the role of Tammy's (merely metaphorical) fairy godmother, who transforms her into a captivating Southern belle, looking just like the portrait of an ancestor of this elite Southern family. She even gives Tammy the ancestor’s dress to wear, so she can win the heart of her love. This is the fantasy Frenchy wants. And of course, it’s what will eventually happen to Sandy, being taken under the wing of other women, given new clothes, and taught new manners, though all in a hard-core, rock-and-roll kinda way…

And it’s also a smart parody of those psychological dream sequences in old-fashioned musical dramas like Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Lady in the Dark, and others, in which the leading lady works through her dilemma in the form of a dream. The joke here is that Frenchy doesn’t get the answer she wants from her dream, because Grease isn’t an old-fashioned musical.

Danny’s big character song (sadly replaced in the film), “Alone at a Drive-In Movie,” is a delicious tribute to and parody of the teen laments of early rock and roll, including The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” (you can sing “Drive-In Movie” to the original recording of “Earth Angel”), The Platters’ “The Great Pretender,” The Flamingos’ “Would I Be Cryin’?”, and Johnny Ray’s “Cry.” It is a classic male doo-wop song, with its independent bass line and falsetto tenor floating up above the lead melody.

The song works both as a musical theatre “I Want” character song, and also as an authentic 50s rock lament. This moment couldn’t be clearer: Sandy may want acceptance, (self-)love, self-knowledge, but Danny just wants sex. These two worlds have to find an accommodation, and they will in the show’s finale. (The replacement song in the film, “Sandy,” isn’t a bad song, but it doesn’t achieve half of what “Alone at a Drive-In Move” does, textually, thematically, or musically, and it’s far too introspective for a kid like Danny Zuko.) But this song also works on a second level, as a cultural commentary on the power of drive-in movies in teen culture in the 50s. Cars had been changing sex since the 1920s, but by the 50s, more teenagers had more access to more cars than ever before, giving them the privacy they craved on a regular basis. Drive-in movies had been created as family entertainment, and between 1943 and 1953, more than 2,900 drive-in theatres opened in America, the total reaching nearly 5,000 by 1958. But once television stole the family audience, drive-in owners targeted their marketing exclusively at teens, while small, low-budget studios started cranking out material specifically for this new niche market, creating “teen exploitation” films that drastically changed and radicalized teenagers’ perception of themselves and each other. Drive-ins became a place to cruise for girls, hang with the “wrong crowd,” get drunk and get laid, awkwardly, in the back seat. These films opened teenaged eyes to sex, violence, and other various vices like never before, inadvertently creating a new, more sophisticated, more cynical teen market.

The fake movie dialogue in the scene leading up to “Alone at the Drive-In Movie” lampoons the two most prevalent genres of drive-in films: horror movies (a comic mix of I Was a Teenage Werewolf and those paranoid 1950s “science run amok” flicks, like 1954’s Them!), crossed with drag racing movies. Strangely enough, television had also come close to killing radio, in ratings and advertising revenue, until radio did what the drive-ins did by targeting teenagers.

“Rock and Roll Party Queen” is another song (like “Magic Changes” and “Hand Jive”) that reminds us that Grease isn’t primarily about Danny and Sandy; it’s about rock and roll and how it impacted American sex. This is a tribute to the Everly Brothers and their perfect-thirds harmonies, modeled on “Wake Up, Little Susie” (a song about having sex at the drive-in) and other Everly Brothers hits, as well as songs like the Dell-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me.” The lyric says more than it seems, describing a party girl that all the kids “know” (in the Biblical sense?), that they talk about, who stays out late with boys, and who will soon be seventeen (the age of sexual consent, which of course means she’s currently under the age of consent), etc. The Party Queen is the fully sexual girl that Rizzo is and Sandy may become. Here, in this scene, the song both comments on Rizzo’s fears of pregnancy and foreshadows Sandy’s realization that she’s too repressed sexually.

I told you there was more going on in Grease than you thought.

This scene also shows us another aspect of 50s teen culture, the Basement Party. Grace Palladino writes, “If their parents could afford it, they followed the experts’ advice to fix up party rooms to keep young teenagers safe at home . . . complete with a television set, soft drink bar, and plenty of room for dancing.” Jan hosts this party and Marty hosts the pajama party in Act I – their parents clearly know this philosophy. But the scene is important dramatically because it’s the first time we see both Rizzo and Kenickie grapple with real, serious emotions, revealing a vulnerability that is both unfamiliar and uncomfortable for both of them.

Rizzo’s big Eleven O’Clock Number (the big character-revealing song just before the finale) is the now classic “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” possibly inspired by The Tune Weavers’ “Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby,” a 50s song with a similar “broken heart” theme and beat. Rizzo is (spiritually if not actually) one of the Beats (commonly – and derisively – called Beatniks by the mainstream to suggest that they were Communists), a group most famously represented by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who in the 1950s rejected mainstream values, morality, and art, trying to break through the façade of polite society to a more honest, more authentic way of living. “Worse Things” contains the entirety of 1950s youth (and Beat) morality in its lyric.

Like everything else in Grease, Rizzo represents that transition from the 50s to the 60s. She’d like us to think she’s as authentic as they come, but she hides Kenickie’s paternity from him and she hides her hurt from her friends. It’s only when Sandy calls Rizzo on her “mask” that Rizzo sings “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” beginning a two-song arc of revelation for Sandy.  In a weird way, Rizzo becomes a Wise Wizard figure to Sandy...

Structurally,"Worst Things" links these two women. In each of the three verses, Rizzo attacks Sandy for her perceived sins – being a tease (leading Danny on but not delivering), being self-pitying (most notably in “Raining on Prom Night”), and being judgmental (in the scene leading up to the song). And as often happens in real life, the sins Rizzo sees in Sandy are also Rizzo’s sins as well.

This is a song built on very real, raw emotions, a song that finally reveals the character of Rizzo late in Act II as vulnerable, insecure, easily hurt. The audience may not see this coming but it fills out and explains everything Rizzo has done over the course of the story. Almost at the end of the show, we see that she probably was in love with Zuko (only to see him taken away) and is now clearly in love with Kenickie (who she has just cut off from her). She sees no Happily Ever After for herself. All she thinks she can do is put up a brave front and hide her insecurity. But that also walls her off from any real emotional connection to anyone. If she won't allow herself to cry in front of anyone, how can she ever get close? And the payoff of the last line is the most telling: none of the normal “crimes” of dating are the worst crime; the worst crime is showing vulnerability.

That's really good writing and a really good character song. It's so sad and it says so much in such seemingly simple language, without ever being simplistic.

“Worse Things” segues directly to its companion piece, Sandy's parallel self-evaluation, the reprise of "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," in which Sandy finally sees and accepts the truth in Rizzo’s metaphor, finally recognizing that she must reject artificial values imposed by others, so she can find her own way. But Sandy only comes to this realization because “Worse Things” opened her up to the idea of authenticity as a fundamental value; now she can act on that newfound wisdom in her reprise (just like in all the ancient hero myths).

Tim Riley argues in his book Fever that early rock and roll delivered a powerful message to its listeners: “The challenge of building an original identity, rather than accepting a received identity predicated on the values of their parents, became a necessary life passage.” Like all the best theatre songs, Sandy makes a decision in the “Sandra Dee” reprise, and the plot takes a turn toward its final destination. Sandy must decide who she is herself and what she values; she must embrace all of who she is, including her sexuality. She now realizes that only when she is true to herself can she be happy with Danny, and this final revelation will lead us to the show’s rowdy, playful finale “All Choked Up” (sadly replaced in the film by the less carnal disco number “You're the One That I Want”).

And again, we can see Jacobs and Casey’s lyric writing craft here in their most conventional theatre song, as they effortlessly spin out multiple internal rhymes without ever disrupting a line or thought:
Look at me,
There has to be
Something more than what they see.
Wholesome and pure,
Also scared and unsure,
A poor man’s Sandra Dee.

Poor even rhymes (unnoticed) with pure and unsure... The bridge is loaded with long e and long i sounds, with a close interior rhyme at the end, in has and last:
When they criticize
And make fun of me,
Can’t they see the tears in my smile?
Don’t they realize
There’s just one of me,
And it has to last me a while?

And the rhyming accelerates in the last verse, giving the song real momentum as Sandy marches toward triumph (very similar to the end of "On the Steps of the Palace"):
Sandy, you
Must start anew.
Don’t you know what you
Must do?
Hold your head high,
Take a deep breath and sigh,
To Sandra Dee.

Here again, some usually unnoticed treasure, in the powerful alliteration of Hold your head high, as each successive line climbs musically higher and higher to the climax.

But this song isn’t just about Sandy saying goodbye to her false idols; it’s also about America saying goodbye to the false idols of the 1950s, saying goodbye to the turning of its collective blind eye away from the hidden horrors of the decade: rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, teen pregnancy and abortion, prescription drug abuse in the suburbs, and so much more. Sandy has to face herself and find her own authenticity, but so too does America.

The rowdy “All Choked Up,” the show’s finale, is clearly inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and perhaps also by Little Willie John’s “Fever” (later recorded by Peggy Lee in 1958), not only paying tribute to the music but also to the content of “Great Balls of Fire,” with the idea of love causing sickness. Here Grease shows us the turmoil ahead in the 1960s, as sexual roles are reversed. Now that Sandy is a sexual being, she can finally sing real rock and roll. Now Sandy is the aggressor, a lesson she learned from rock and roll, a social trend that would soon push boundaries further and further, from Tina Turner’s “A Fool in Love” well into the 1970s. This is the beginning of feminism. Now American women could be sexual too. Many of those who still object to the show’s ending miss the point of the show and may be unconsciously still caught up in gender stereotypes from the 50s that remain pervasive today.

If a boy is sexually aggressive (as in “Greased Lightning”) he’s just a guy. If a girl is sexually aggressive, she’s a slut. Have we really come all that far since 1959?

But notice that in the lyric, Sandy tells Danny (and us) that she is still not ready to sleep with him. Sandy may have changed the way she looks, she may now celebrate the curves of her body rather than hiding them behind poodle skirts, and she may now have a more progressive philosophy of sexuality, but no matter how dramatically Danny pleads, she’s still not “going all the way” just yet; that part of her has not changed fundamentally.

She has not become a slut.

But perhaps even more significant than Sandy’s new sexualized rock and roll persona in “All Choked Up” is her line after the song: Danny asks her if she’s still mad at him and she answers, “Nah, fuck it.” That this is the first time we’ve heard Sandy talk like that is certainly important, but even more so is what her answer means.

The phrase is not just obscene; it’s also a universally recognized idiom with two related meanings. First, it says to the world that the speaker just doesn’t care anymore. Sandy’s not just cussing here; she’s publicly rejecting all the values of her past life, in particular the idea that sex is “dirty,” or that Danny is a "bad boy." She’s transitioning from the 50s to the 60s. The other, parallel meaning  of "fuck it" is that regardless of the consequences, the speaker is charging ahead, and that’s part of this moment as well.

But it goes even deeper than that. Fuck is the granddaddy of all cuss words, the word that draws a line in the moral sand. Especially in 1959 – but even still today – fuck is a word that separates the “nice” (i.e., conforming) people from the “bad” (i.e., less repressed) people. Here at the end of our story, Sandy has picked sides in one of America’s great Culture Wars, and so her journey moves out of the personal and into the political, as she utters this infamous word that will stand at the very center of the counterculture of the 1960s, a word Lenny Bruce will go to jail for.

It’s a great way to end this story, and it’s also why a cleaned-up, sanitized Grease is worse than no Grease at all…

All of this is why I love Grease so much, why I connect to the songs and the characters so powerfully. The whole thing has always struck me as extraordinarily truthful and honest. And so, it's always bummed me out when people dismiss the show as shallow crap.

It's not.

As I just proved.

Long Live the Musical

This essay is a revised version of part of one chapter from my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.