Top Ten Totally Painless Ways to Support New Line

You matter. After all, New Line exists for you. Theatre isn't theatre without an audience.

And also, you are powerful. In fact, you are one of the most powerful marketing tools ever devised by humans.

New Line Theatre is a small nonprofit company, doing somewhat less-than-mainstream work, so we will always struggle financially. We could do Nunsense and South Pacific and not struggle, but we'd rather do Yeast Nation, Lizzie, and Sweet Smell of Success, so we struggle.

The most direct ways you can support New Line are to buy a ticket or make a donation. But we know lots of New Line lovers are starving artsies, and those aren't the only ways to support New Line.

But before we go on, I do have to mention one thing. When you go to our Contribute page, and you click on our Donate button, it takes you to a secure PayPal donation form. What's new now is that you can check a box that says "Make this a monthly donation." We've never been able to do that automatically before. I know that to some people (like me) a $150 donation seems beyond their means. But $20 a month doesn't seem that scary, and that adds up to a $240 donation! Plus, it's automatic, so you might not even notice... I know I wouldn't...

But even if you can't donate, there are a bunch of other things you can do to help us! Here are ten.

1. Unleash Facebook! If you haven't already, "Like" the New Line page on Facebook. And then visit our page regularly, and like, share, and comment on our posts, share our events, and invite your friends to our events. The power of Facebook is geometry -- you tell five friends, and they tell five friends, and so on and so on... So help us spread the good word! For us, nothing matters more than getting folks in our theatre door. In most cases, once people see a New Line show, they're probably coming back, and they might even become donors. So help us get them in the door!

2. Give your birthday to New Line on Facebook.  I've separated this out because it's a very powerful tool. Go to your Facebook home page, and look on the left side column, way down at the bottom of the menu. You should see the "Fundraiser" option under Create. Click on Fundraiser and Facebook will walk you through the process. It's easy, and you can painlessly raise some money for New Line!

3. When you come to the theatre, Check-In on Facebook. And take a picture of yourself in front of the set and post it on Instagram, and Tweet about it too! After the show, tell everybody how great it was and encourage them to come see it! Word of mouth is everything to a company like ours, and social media is our best friend.

In fact, do this for all the theatre you see in town! Imagine the power if all of us checked in on Facebook every time we went to the theatre. The rest of St. Louis would be astounded at how much great theatre is going on here, that they never even knew about.

4. Make sure you're on our email mailing list. And when we send you stuff, forward our emails to all your friends and family who might be interested. Again, it's the magic of geometry. If you're not on our list, just send a quick request to

5. Use Amazon Smile when you shop at Amazon. It's really easy -- when you're heading to Amazon to shop this holiday season (and all year 'round), just go to instead. You'll end up in the same place except, when you go to Smile, it'll ask you to pick a charity (you'll choose New Line Theatre, of course), and then whenever you buy anything through Amazon Smile (bookmark it!), New Line gets a small donation. And it really adds up! Last season the total in Smile donations was about $200! Imagine if all the New Liners used Amazon Smile this holiday season...!

6. Rate Us on Facebook, Yelp, Google, etc.! Like everything else on the web, it's a geometry game. Interaction breeds interaction. And also, people do pay attention to customer ratings.

7. Call or email our funders to tell them how much you love New Line! We've gotten a grant from the Missouri Arts Council every year for twenty-eight years. And until this current season, we've gotten a grant every year from the Regional Arts Commission. (Why we didn't this year is another story, but we hope to get our RAC grant back next season.) It would help us out a lot if RAC and MAC would hear from the community about how great New Line is. Our funders want to know we're serving our community well and have the support of our community. Show them we do.

You can call Michael Donovan, executive director of the Missouri Arts Council, at 314-340-6845 or email him.

You can all Felicia Shaw, executive director at the Regional Arts Commission at 314-863-5811 or email her.

8. Buy and wear New Line Gear! We've got a lot of cool New Line gear on CafePress -- we've got New Line t-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs and glasses, greeting cards, teddy bears, rugs, lacquer boxes, pillows, clocks, jewelry, shower curtains, Christmas stuff, stuff for kids and pets! Some of this cool gear would make amazing holiday presents for St. Louis musical theatre lovers!

9. Get the New Line Calendar! Every year, we produce a calendar with high-quality production photos by Jill Ritter Photography. So order a calendar, display it proudly in your home and/or office, and let it be a great conversation starter with your friends and family about how cool New Line is! Plus you get to look at really great production photos all year!

10. Talk about our shows all over social media after you see them! It's important to spread the word, and to share New Line's posts, etc. But most powerful of all is direct "reviews" on social media from audience members. After all, great review quotes can go a long way, but if your best friend tells you that you have to see some weird show you've never heard of, you're gonna listen to your friend before you listen to a reviewer.

Some people these days bemoan the slow dying away of the "professional" theatre critic in this new information age, in which everyone can "publish" their opinions. I understand that, but I don't agree. Believe me, sometimes untrained reviewers can really get it wrong, but sometimes trained, experienced reviewers can really get it wrong too. I could name a dozen examples, but I won't. There is real value in "civilians" posting their thoughts about a production on social media, particularly when a show really powerfully affects them.

And we do a lot of shows like that.

In short, we have a potential army of New Line fans, and if we can mobilize all of you, we can have ever greater success, and our budget can get significantly healthier. Talk about us, advocate for us, post about us, tell everybody about all the cool, quirky, intelligent, thrilling musical theatre going on at New Line. Bring people with you to our shows who haven't been before. Tell all the college students you know about our College Free Seats, and tell high school kids about our high school discount.

In other words, Rise up for New Line!

Long Live the Musical!

To See the Face of God

Director Trevor Nunn said that Les Misérables is a show about God. And it is.

It's also a show about the nobility of the human spirit, faith, redemption, and other spiritual concepts. Religion and spirituality -- as well as the distortion of it and the lack of it -- informs most of the action of the show.

Jean Valjean sings in Act II, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Valjean and Inspector Javert both believe fervently in God, but they believe in very different Gods. Javert believes in an angry, vengeful, Old Testament God, in the absolutes of right and wrong, good and evil. He believes that Valjean broke the law (which he did) and must be punished according to the law.

In “Stars” Javert sings:
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward.
And if they fall as Lucifer fell,
The flame, the sword!

And later in the song:
And so it has been,
And so it is written on the doorway to Paradise,
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price.

Though he is a man obsessed, he believes in the law, both man's and God's. How many people today would accept that some criminals shouldn't have to be punished according to the law? We can look back now and say that the law of the time was too severe, but Javert has sworn to uphold the law, and how can we condemn him for that? Yes, Valjean was poor and starving; but is that justification for breaking into someone else's home and stealing their food, and then later, breaking parole (remember that Javert is pursuing Valjean not for the theft but for breaking his parole)?

Javert is trapped by the strictness of his own beliefs, so that when Valjean turns those beliefs upside-down by releasing him in Act II, Javert believes he has no alternative but to kill himself. He sings:
And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles.
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so.
. . .
There is nowhere I can turn.
There is no way to go on!

Javert's world, his convictions, the rules by which he's lived his entire life, are called into question, and because of the single-mindedness of his existence, he now has nothing left to live for. It's hard to say he was a bad man; after all, he was upholding not only the laws of man, but the laws of God as well.

For the most part, Javert is the villain of Les Misérables, but it's not that simple. His sin lies in his extremism.

He sees the world in black and white. He sees the divinity in the world and believes it is his duty to preserve it. In his song, “Stars,” he sees the night sky as a symbol of the immutability of the universe. The stars represent God and the natural order of things, “filling the darkness with order and light.” Valjean has violated Javert's view of what the world should be. There is no question that Valjean is guilty of the crime with which he was charged. Like his descendant, Detective Gerard in The Fugitive, Javert doesn't care whether or not the law is fair; it's the law.

In contrast to Javert, Jean Valjean believes in a benevolent, forgiving, New Testament God. He believes in redemption. When the bishop in the prologue not only lies to the police on his behalf, but also gives him the silver candlesticks, Valjean sees that he's being given a second chance, a chance to live life according to God's dictates (“My soul belongs to God, I know,” he sings later). He has broken the law, has repented, and has been forgiven (by God, anyway).

He has received redemption.

Valjean aspires to goodness and he achieves it; the audience identifies with his desire to be a good man and lead a good life -- and also with his past transgressions. He risks his life to find and protect Cosette. He actually offers up his own life to God in exchange for Marius, so that Marius and Cosette can be together.

English lyricist Herbert Kretzmer sees “Bring Him Home” as Valjean's final transformation from selfishness to genuine altruism. The song is literally a prayer, and perhaps more than any other moment in the show, invokes the spirituality that lies beneath the entire musical.

When Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean, first sang the song in rehearsal, a hush fell over the company. Trevor Nunn said, “See? I told you this show was all about God.” And one of the company members said, “Yes, but you didn't tell us you'd engaged Him to sing it.”

In contrast to all that, Thénardier doesn't believe in God at all. He is completely amoral, living only by the rules of survival. He believes that it's every man for himself, and looking at his life it's no surprise that he feels that way. Again, it's hard to say he's a bad person; he lives outside the realm of right and wrong. Thénardier and My Fair Lady's Alfred P. Dolittle are cut from the same cloth, not immoral so much as amoral. In My Fair Lady, when Col. Pickering asks, “Have you no morals, man?”, Dolittle replies, “No, I can't afford 'em, Governor.”

We impose our middle class morality on Thénardier without a practical consideration of the difficulty of his day-to-day survival. He sums up his life in “Dog Eats Dog.” When Thénardier sees the chaos, the injustice that runs rampant through the streets he can come to only one conclusion:
And God in his heaven,
He don't interfere,
'Cos he's dead as the stiffs at my feet.

If there was a God, Thénardier reasons, He would not allow a world as black and unforgiving as this one. The Thénardiers steal not only from the rich, but from the poor as well. It is truly a dog-eat-dog world.

So many morally ambiguous situations are scattered throughout the show -- Fantine turning to prostitution in order to make enough money to support Cosette, the Thénardiers taking more of Fantine's money than they need to keep Cosette, the Thénardiers' looting of the dead bodies after the insurrection, even arguably the insurrection itself. So many of these situations have no clear right or wrong, and perhaps the message of Les Misérables is that people are basically good, that they do what they have to do to survive, that ultimately good always triumphs, and that we are judged not by each other, but by God.

Though Sweeney Todd might disagree...

And really, is that what Les Miz tells us...? Considering the fates of the lead characters, maybe the Big Takeaway here is that the Thénardiers' way is best, not to be constrained to the morality of other people half a world and two thousand years away, not to be tied to ancient mythologies that often have very little relevance to the everyday struggles of real people.

The Thénardiers share a lot with Captain Macheath in Threepenny, when he sings:
What keeps a man alive? He lives on others;
He likes to taste them first, then eat them whole, if he can;
Forgets that they’re supposed to be his brothers,
That he himself was ever called a man...

That's some dark shit, but that's what Les Miz is really about -- the darkness of human existence and how we as humans respond to it. Both Valjean and Javert respond with dogma, while the poor respond by accepting (embracing?) that darkness. Maybe what we're supposed to take away from this story is that all human paths and choices are difficult, but the best we can do is shine some light on the darkness. And that's what Valjean does -- he responds to acts of darkness with acts of light.

A lesson we need today in 2018 more than ever before. There is great darkness in the land, and the only way to kill it is with light.

I'll leave you with a quote from Next to Normal:
We need some light.
First of all, we need some light.
You can't sit here in the dark.
And all alone, it's a sorry sight.
It's just you and me.
We'll live, you'll see.

Night after night,
We'd sit and wait for the morning light.
But we've waited far too long,
For all that's wrong to be made right.

And when the night has finally gone.
And when we see the new day dawn.
We'll wonder how we wandered for so long, so blind.
The wasted world we thought we knew,
The light will make it look brand new.
So let it shine.

Day after day,
We'll find the will to find our way,
Knowing that the darkest skies
Will someday see the sun.
When our long night is done,
There will be light.

Long Live the Musical!

No, No, Nanette!

There's a lot more going on in No, No, Nanette! than most people realize.

This first of the genuine classics of musical comedy appeared on Broadway in 1925, with a book by Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel (based on Mandel’s play His Lady Friends), music by Vincent Youmans (then only twenty-six), and lyrics by Irving Caesar (then only twenty-nine) and Harbach. Youmans was hired as the composer only because his mother made a sizeable investment in the show and demanded producer Harry Frazee hire her son, but he proved himself an outstanding composer. Youmans enjoyed the kind of harmonic sophistication and experimentation that only George Gershwin equaled at the time, along with a genuine gift for melody.

Built on an old-fashioned, three-act, one-set-per-act structure, the story focused on three couples Jimmy and Sue Smith, Billy and Lucille Early, and the young lovers Tom and Nanette. Because Sue is so tight with the millions Jimmy has made selling Bibles, Jimmy “adopts” three pretty young women and finances their various enterprises. Jimmy, his lawyer Billy, and his niece Nanette all go to Atlantic City to meet the three girls who are now threatening to blackmail Jimmy. Lucille catches Billy with the girls, Tom and the rebellious, looking-to-raise-some-hell Nanette fight, everyone gets confused, and it looks like no one will get a happy ending. But sure enough, everything gets explained and after some hits songs like “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy,” all is forgiven. (In fact, the majority of Nanette’s score become pop hits.)

This was the music of the jazz age, not of Europe, not of ten years before, but of that very moment in America, music audiences could sing or dance to after the show. This story was about American now. The Act I finale was the kind of extended musical scene that would become commonplace later in the century in shows like Carousel, Into the Woods, and others, but here it was in 1925. Every moment and every song supported the plot and relationships and unlike many shows that had come before it, Nanette had something to say.

The show was about money and American greed.

Nearly every character in the show had some interesting and/or fucked-up relationship to money. Jimmy was a near-millionaire who loved giving people money just to make them happy, and the three gold-diggers girls were there just to con him into giving them generous handouts. Jimmy’s wife Sue was thrifty and hated the idea of spending money foolishly. Sue’s best friend Lucille was a compulsive shopper, buying things just for the sake of buying them, and to keep her husband on a leash by making him work like crazy to pay her bills. Nanette feels imprisoned because she has no money of her own and thus, no independence. The maid Pauline even had a song early in the show to set up this theme, “Pay Day Pauline” (cut from the revival).

Money, Nanette was telling us, is a weapon, a source of power, a prison, and a sure road to victimization. Most interestingly, Jimmy has made his fortune as a Bible publisher, a subtle reminder of the Bible’s admonition that the love of money is the root of all evil. America in 1925 and its rampant consumerism was right there on stage to be laughed at, sure, but also to be slyly and accurately commented upon.

But interestingly, this hit show didn’t start on Broadway.

It first opened in Detroit in April 1924, then went on to Chicago in May 1924 for a six month run, where it underwent repeated emergency surgery. (Only after its run in Detroit did its songwriting team write the show’s two biggest hits, “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy.”) Each time the show was changed, the critics were invited back, and each time they liked it a bit more. Still, by the end of the Chicago run, producer H. H. Frazee had lost about $75,000.

A second Nanette company was sent to Philadelphia and the eastern seaboard. Another company was sent west. The rights to a London production were sold while it toured and so it opened in London in March 1925, a full six months before its Broadway debut. In fact, it ran longer in London than on Broadway – 665 performances in London, and only 321 performances on Broadway. In April 1926, the show opened in France, with much more spectacle and much more dance. Then the London production toured to Berlin (1926), Vienna (1927), and Budapest (1928). Also in 1927, a few of the same folks put together a completely unrelated sequel called Yes, Yes, Yvette, which ran forty performances (apparently forty more than it deserved).

Obviously something in Nanette's subtle but scathing satire connected with audiences, not just in New York, but across the country and around the world.

Nanette was assaulted... oops, I mean revived in 1971, the script ransacked, songs cut, the score fiddled with and clumsily over-orchestrated, the whole thing overproduced and gaudy, but it still ran 861 performances, eclipsing the original production. Sadly, the very funny opening number “Flappers Are We” was cut, along with both songs sung by the wise-cracking maid, Pauline, and much of the satire about Americans’ obsession with money.

Nanette had been neutered and it became harmlessly cute nostalgia rather than hilariously sly social commentary. They took what had been an intelligent, well-crafted musical comedy and dumbed it down into what people in the 1970s only thought musicals of the 1920s were like, in the process losing all that was special about the original.

The revival's producer Cyma Rubin (nicknamed "the Black Witch" by the Nanette company) had hired the retired Busby Berkeley to both direct and choreograph the show (figuring she could save a salary that way) but he just wasn’t up to it. So he became a "consultant" and Burt Shevelove took over as director. Before long, Shevelove was also writing an entirely new script. Everyone had agreed that the original script just would not do, but Charlie Gaynor, who had been first hired to write the new script, loved the original too much. He barely changed it, infuriating Rubin. So Shevelove now found himself writing a new script at night while he rehearsed the cast during the day, sometimes canceling rehearsals because there literally was no script to rehearse. He began by paring down the original script to its essentials – but that wasn’t as easy as it sounds. And there were more problems. Donald Saddler was called in to choreograph this tap dancing show, but he couldn’t tap dance. Raoul Pene du Bois was designing costumes but didn’t have a script yet. Buster Davis was creating new orchestrations but wasn’t sure which songs would be in the new script.

Shevelove explained his intentions to the cast this way: “The world today is not a pretty place. It is filled with terrible news every day of Vietnam, campus riots, pollution, crime, inflation. The audiences that will come to see our show will have heard enough – much too much – about all those things. We must take their minds off these problems and make them concerned only with this: Will Nanette, this innocent little child get her wish and spend a weekend in Atlantic City? Nothing else, nothing else at all, is important. This warm, sunny, lovely little show must be our valentine to the audience.”

But he didn't understand the show he was rewriting. The original Nanette had dealt with more; Nanette and Tom had only been a frame upon which to hang some very insightful satire and social commentary. And Shevelove had also bought into the terrible myth that audiences want escape. They don't. They want connection. That's very different.

Also, Nanette was not "this innocent little child," but a young woman who wanted some independence for herself, at a time when many women were craving that -- both in 1925 and in 1971!

The revival finally opened, after a very bumpy ride, in January 1971. (Don Dunn’s tell-all book The Making of No, No, Nanette, now out of print, told the whole sordid tale.) Critic Martin Gottfried wrote in Women’s Wear Daily, “Somewhere along the way, Burt Shevelove decided to make this show ‘nice’ and instead of the potentially brilliant, he settled for the vacantly agreeable.” John Simon called the show “mendacious and stupid beyond the rights of any show, however escapist, to be in this day and age.”

Musical theatre had changed; ironically, the real Nanette probably would have been better received in 1971. As other shoddily revised revivals – soon to be called "revisals" – like Irene and Good News, followed in Nanette’s percussive footsteps, the critics revolted. With mutilated scripts and composite scores taken from multiple sources, these revivals barely resembled the originals. Brendan Gill of The New Yorker called this new genre, “show-biz body snatching” and “a sort of brightly painted mummy case in which bits and pieces of other once celebrated cadavers have been made to mingle with a portion of the authentic remains.”

It's the same problem we have in the New York commercial theatre today, producers and directors who don't understand the material they're working on, especially when that material is something genuinely fresh and unique. Just look at the terribly misguided original Broadway productions of High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, and Heathers, just to name a few recent examples.

Most directors of plays try to make sure they understand the play before they start directing it. Directors of musicals, especially many working in New York, don't always do that. They try to make it what they want it to be, instead of discovering what it is. And now in this new Golden Age for our art form, so many new shows are unlike any others, with their own very unique set of rules. If a director doesn't bother to figure out what those rules are, they'll do damage to the show. Just as Shevelove and friends did to No, No, Nanette.

Not all comedy works the same, and not all musicals work the same.

And sometimes, the shows that seem lightweight on the surface have a great deal going on underneath. Just look at Hair, Grease, and Rocky Horror, all three shows usually dismissed as shallow, kitschy, messy, unstructured, and/or empty-headed. But all three are smart, carefully constructed, insightful commentaries on incredibly pivotal moments in our cultural history.

People seem to assume that if a show is fun, it can't also be substantial, but New Line disproves that over and over, with Jerry Springer the Opera, American Idiot, Bat Boy, Cry-Baby, Heathers, and so many other shows -- most recently and perhaps most notably, Anything Goes.

And we're about to disprove it again in March, when we open La Cage aux Folles.

Long Live the Musical!

The Power of Love Can Make a Zombie Too!

It's hard to believe it's over. It was five years ago that I set out to write The Zombies of Penzance. It seemed so perfect, so deliciously fucked up, and the process of "translating" the story , the changing of Gilbert's pirates into zombies, hardly disturbed the plot at all (though I later made some larger plot changes).

I know you want to ask, so yes, I was seriously stoned when I thought of the idea.

I immediately loved everything about it. I already deeply loved The Pirates of Penzance. I love zombie movies. I love mashups. Plus, I quickly decided that my approach would include an elaborate, though entirely false, backstory about the creation of The Zombies of Penzance. In fact, that meta-layer became an important part of the humor. We tell the audience Gilbert wrote these zombie lyrics, but then throughout the evening, we keep smacking them with anachronisms, four-letter words, and other morsels that Gilbert would/could never have written -- including all the references to zombies, which hadn't entered the awareness of Western culture yet in 1879.

I loved all of that. The inherent wrongness of its very conception, the fundamental idea of telling a horror story in the language of English light opera, possibly the most "wrong" storytelling form imaginable for this content. That was the appeal for me, more than anything else. I love things, particularly art, that are obviously wrong or fucked-up. That's so interesting, and often, so funny -- and it often reveals very cool, unexpected things.

I also loved the idea that this would be New Line's second zombie musical, since we did the very serious Night of the Living Dead in 2013. And its our seventh horror musical, following our productions of Rocky Horror, Sweeney Todd, Bat Boy, In the Blood, and Lizzie. Should we also count Urinetown...?

Throughout the time I've been working on this, I was always mindful of the fact that no matter how funny or meta-ironic my text was, it had no real value on the page. It's only a zombie operetta when it's live (dead?) onstage. I needed lots of people to make it into live theatre. That's true of all our shows, but since this was an awfully odd experiment, it was constantly in my awareness. When I talked to friends about it, at some point I'd always throw in, "...if I ever finish it, and if we produce it..."

We held a public reading in January. To my amazement, 150 people showed up, and to my greater amazement they followed the plot easily and fully embraced my multiple layers of meta, my blatant anachronisms, and the four-letter words sprinkled throughout. The audience loved both the ways in which I had stayed true to Gilbert & Sullivan and their traditions, and also the ways in which I violated that.

It's actually a fairly complex piece I wrote, and I was delighted that many of the reviewers noticed and appreciated that. Paul Friswold wrote in his Riverfront Times review:
Scott Miller and John Gerdes are the responsible parties, tinkering with Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's music to create something more than the sum of the parts. The two St. Louisans have added modern references, profanity and a careful adherence to the spirit of the original operetta. Portraits of George A. Romero and Queen Victoria hang above the old-fashioned stage and its working footlights, hinting at the twin forces at work here. Romero is the godfather of zombies in popular entertainment, and Victoria led the society that simultaneously embraced Gilbert & Sullivan's jaunty work and harbored a morbid fascination with life after death. All of these elements come together on stage, to strange and often comic effect.
. . .
But it's not all fun and pop-culture riffs. Despite his lethal nature, the Major-General has a most troubled conscience. The second-act song "When the World Went Bad" cracks open the show's candy coating to reveal the darkness within. Stanley sings of his fears about the forces bringing the dead to life, and worries about the coarsening of his soul. Is he less moral than the Zombie King, who spares some people (albeit under false pretenses)? The Major-General kills them all, and then shakes with terror and remorse late at night. Is he worse than what he hunts?

It's a question that harkens back to Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, which was Romero's own inspiration. The book also informs the finale, which is preceded by a delightfully ridiculous brawl between the Stanley daughters, who are in their bloomers and bearing cricket bats and nunchucks, and the zombie horde. Things become very dark indeed. But you know what they say: It's always darkest before the dawn of the dead.

Some people reflexively dismissed the show -- without seeing it of course -- as a stunt, a bastardization, a one-joke show. I'll admit that my new Major-General lyric is a stunt, but so is Gilbert's original. That's what patter songs are. Beyond that, The Zombies of Penzance is an experiment in form and content, it's a weirdly complex, over-arching meta-joke about lost and discarded works (and also gender norms in 1879), and it's also very much a "translation" of Gilbert's original text, in terms of cultural context and also in terms of themes.

As I wrote in another blog post, The Pirates of Penzance is about how absurd and arbitrary class distinctions are. But though I changed the basic story very little, the substitution of monsters (zombies) for "monsters" (pirates) changes more than you'd expect. The Zombies of Penzance is about the Other-ing of those who are different from us, particularly by those who claim the moral high ground.

And also, because I cut the policemen from the story, and gave their songs to the Stanley daughters, who are now trained zombie hunters, it's also a story about women standing up for themselves, fighting back, solving their own problems. I was honestly shocked at how empowering it apparently felt for women in our audience when the daughters marched on in their zombie hunter clothes in mid-Act II, particularly I think for women who know Pirates.

The journey's been five years for me, but it's also been two years for John Gerdes, who adapted the music and orchestrated it. He adapted and orchestrated all the music before our reading last January, then he orchestrated Yeast Nation for us, then he came back to Zombies, finished his work and incorporated my rewrites from the reading. And then John and his wife Lea played in the band for the show. So I suspect John will have some zombie withdrawal as well.

This amazing cast has been working on this show since last November, when we started rehearsals for the reading. They have worked so hard on this score, both musically and conceptually. I realized early on that we had to apply the lessons of Little Shop, Bat Boy, and Urinetown to The Zombies of Penzance. The more seriously we take it, the funnier it gets; and in parallel to that, the better we sing the music, the more seriously we take that, the funnier the show gets. This isn't Evil Dead. To maintain the crazy meta-story, our audience had to believe this was intended to be performed at the Savoy Theatre in the 1880s. The more legit the music, the funnier the show.

And likewise, the better the craft -- rhymes, scansion, etc. -- the funnier the show. The Major-General's big patter song, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Era Zombie Killer," is funny partly because the craft is good. Really, I guess all this is a lesson Gilbert and Sullivan learned long before Little Shop of Horrors. Almost all their shows are inherently ridiculous stories (about inherently ridiculous aspects of Western culture) which they present utterly straight-faced. No matter how wacky Gilbert's text gets, Sullivan's music is always straight-faced.

This has been such a wonderful experience for me, bringing two of my greatest loves together, G&S and zombies. To quote my own lyric:
Hail, zombies, thou heav’n-made dead!
Forsaken by the God we dread.
Great metaphor for all we fear!
All hail the end of all that we hold dear!

I was very lucky to find a cast full of really strong, funny, talented, fearless actors to bring my show to life, and almost all of them have stayed with the show since last November. I am very grateful. And then to get such warm, overwhelming responses to it! Look at some of these press quotes:
"Another triumph for New Line. . . a hilariously inspired joke." -- Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"The funniest show that New Line Theatre has ever mounted." -- Judy Newmark, All The World's a Stage

"Both a nightmare and a delight — let's call it a delightmare." -- Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times

"Uproarious." -- Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

"It's amazing. . . so much fun." -- Kevin Brackett, ReviewSTL

"A wonderful whirlwind of apocalyptic delight." -- Tanya Seale, BroadwayWorld

"Reverently irreverent and witty. . . a delightfully fun, pointedly funny musical." -- Tina Farmer KDHX

"Let the wackiness ensue." -- Lynn Venhaus, STL Limelight

"In terms of humor and sheer musicality, it’s remarkable." -- Michelle Kenyon, Snoop's Theatre Thoughts

But our show has closed and my zombie journey ends, for now. We've already gotten a couple requests for rights to perform the show, so the Zombie King may live (die?) on. But for all practical purposes, the ride is over. I will miss these characters and this beautiful music, and this extraordinary cast. It was so thrilling every night when they sang the a cappella chorale late in Act I, "Hail Zombies!" -- such a massive, gorgeous sound (due in large part to music director Nic Valdez)!

John and I will be cleaning up / correcting the script and score, and then we'll publish them on Amazon, so they'll be available soon. And I won't swear to it, but we also may be releasing a live cast album. And yes, we will license other theatres to produce the show.

And don't tell anybody... but I'm already working on another "new" G&S show. No promises, but I may end up writing a G&S horror trilogy before I'm done. I can hear the heads of G&S fans exploding as I type this...

Suggestions are welcome for source material for the third in the trilogy.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite bits from Zombies. Thank you, St. Louis, for once again, taking a chance on us and totally embracing the insanity we've wrought. We owe you so much!
My zombie hunting habits, though a potent, little metaphor,
Are really more subversive than the critics give me credit for.
In nineteenth cent’ry operetta, comedy or thriller,
I am still the very model of a modern-era zombie killer!

Long Live the Musical!

Hail, Zombies!

Hail, zombies, thou heav’n-made dead,
Forsaken by the God we dread;
Great metaphor for all we fear!
All hail the end of all that we hold dear!

It was back in 2013, after watching the movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (coincidentally starring BBAJ's Benjamin Walker). It was just a few hours after watching the movie that I started thinking about what kind of similar mashup I might concoct in the realm of musical theatre. I've always been fascinated by the idea of art made from other art. Maybe that's because so many musicals are based on stories in other forms, plays, novels, movies. Also, I had been wanting to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but hadn't gotten around to it yet.

But if I wanted to adapt an existing piece, I realized I needed to find a work in the public domain. I couldn't fuck around with Carousel or Damn Yankees. And then it hit me -- one of my favorite shows ever, the very first show I ever saw on Broadway, The Pirates of Penzance. It first debuted in 1879 and it is in the public domain.

So I would write The ZOMBIES of Penzance. And yes, I was mega-stoned at the time.

I already knew the show by heart, backwards and forwards. And the plot wouldn't have to change much at all. Major-General Stanley still wouldn't want the title characters to marry his daughters, though for slightly different reasons. I went through the plot in my head, figuring how each plot point would translate. It seemed pretty straight-forward.

In fact, that was the key for me. I realized it would be more an act of translation than a rewrite. How do we tell this same story, but in the language of zombie movies? As I've said in other posts, the real appeal for me was the delicious mismatch of form and content, an aggressive, comic rejection of Sondheim's Law, that Content Dictates Form (much like another New Line show, Bukowsical).

I started with a test for myself. I decided I would first work on the new zombie lyric for "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." If I could do that well, I knew I could do the whole show. I started that same night. It took me three days to finish it. I've changed only a handful of words since then.

So I set to work. I don't think I could have done it with a show I knew less well. It took me four years, though there were periods when I had to put it aside for a while. I finished it in summer 2017, and passed it off to my buddy John Gerdes, who had agreed to arrange the score and orchestrate it. He finished our piano score in November, we went into rehearsal, and we presented a public reading in January.

And the response was wonderful. Even with no set, costumes, makeup, or band, our overflow crowd totally loved it. They caught all the jokes, they followed the plot, and it was confirmed that you didn't need to know The Pirates of Penzance in order to enjoy The Zombies of Penzance, but knowing the original does offer extra laughs here and there.

The response from the talkback after the reading was so helpful. I took a few months, did some rewrites, added a song and a half, and reconstructed the last part of the plot. Then I gave it back to John, who had already finished most of the orchestrations. In August, we went back into rehearsal for this first full production of The Zombies of Penzance, or At Night Come the Flesh Eaters, Gilbert & Sullivan's long-lost treasure.

As I mentioned in my last post, in translating the central conflict to one about Monsters instead of Bad Guys, it also shifted the show's thematic content. The Pirates of Penzance is about the absurdity of social class, but The Zombies of Penzance is about the "Othering" and demonizing of those who aren't like us, usually by those who claim the highest morality. Of course, as befits Gilbert & Sullivan, the conflict is raised to ridiculous proportions in this case, since the Others are actually zombies.

Zombies that sing really well.

And partly because I cut the Policemen, this rewrite has also empowered the Stanley Daughters, much more than most (any?) of Gilbert's other women characters.

I know some hardcore Gilbert & Sullivan fans will be terribly offended at what I've wrought. But that's part of the point, part of the central meta joke, that I've chosen the single most inappropriate storytelling form to tell a zombie apocalypse story -- polite English light opera -- and the larger meta joke, that Zombies actually is Gilbert's first draft, rejected by his producer Richard D'Oyly-Carte.

There is a long and interesting tradition of art made from other art, including, but not limited to, half or more of the great American musicals, most of Shakespeare's plays, and one of the greatest short films I've ever seen, Todd Haynes' brilliant Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Of the nine other musicals I've written, two were based on true stories, but the rest were all original stories. So this has been a fascinating experiment for me, and it has been really wonderful living in the language of Gilbert all this time, writing in his peculiar voice, both in the hilariously overwritten dialogue and the heavily rhymed lyrics. I kept every rhyme scheme!

The best part of all this is seeing it onstage and getting to share it with our audience. People seem to be really excited about it. There will be some hardcore G&S fans who will be horrified by this, but that's really kind of the point of it all...

I'm so grateful to this superb cast, who not only sing Sullivan's glorious music like they're a cast of forty, but they also nail the wacky, silly, ridiculous, but always straight-faced Gilbertian humor. I often say that I can't make musicals without lots of other talented people, but this time I needed lots of very talented people. And we got them. And my co-director Mike Dowdy-Windsor added so much, as he always does, including the most obvious, most perfect final moment -- which hadn't even occurred to me till he said it...

I cannot wait to share this with our audience now. I'm really happy with how it has all turned out, and I'll dare to say that I think Gilbert would enjoy my adaptation, after getting over his outrage that I've rewritten his show, of course...

Come join the crazy fun. When will you ever again get the chance to see a zombie operetta...?

We preview tonight and open tomorrow!  Get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

We'll Hunt the Dead and Mount Their Head

Now that we're running all of The Zombies of Penzance at each rehearsal, it's easier to assess my writing, and I'm pretty happy with it. The public reading we did in January was enormously helpful, and I did tons of small rewrites, and several big rewrites, after that, including 1 1/2 new songs. Watching it now, I think those changes were all good ones.

It's still weird for me because Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance has been a part of me since I saw it on Broadway in 1981, and I've known the show, and the Kevin Kline cast album, by heart ever since. So even though I wrote all these new lyrics, I still hear the originals in my head.

It's fascinating to see the results of my transforming (translating?) of these Penzantian Pirates into Zombies. On the one hand, the essential plot outline changed very little, and the core motivations of the characters changed very little.

But changing mediocre criminals into actual monsters did change some things. As comically high as the stakes are in Pirates, they're considerably higher in Zombies. Sure it's terrible to be kidnapped and married against your will (what is it with musicals and forcible marriage?), but it's much worse to walk the earth as the living dead for the rest of eternity. The horror elements of our story have changed, even super-charged, Gilbert's satire. But also, the Gilbert & Sullivan storytelling form has changed the horror elements.

Unlike a horror movie, our show is populated by funny, clumsy, vaguely charming, and seriously gullible zombies, who are hard to find terrifying when they're singing intricate, Victorian-era, operetta lyrics. And so we get to like these goofy zombies, even root for them (and pity them) a little.

And then Act II opens, and we discover that the proper young Victorian ladies we met in Act I have all been trained as zombie hunters! They sing a creepy lullaby to their troubled father:
Oh, taste the glistening blood,
The giver of life and breath;
Your loving children ache
To hasten the undead death.
You trained us from the cradle,
We must kill again the dead.
We’ll hunt the dead and mount their head,
As Father has said.

The next time we see them, they're all decked out as hunters. We realize we formed opinions about them in Act I -- because of the G&S form, the period costumes, etc. -- and we accepted the convention that women are weak, that they are to be victimized and then rescued. But now they have weapons and they're singing about "a headless zombie running 'round the garden." We realize these women are more complicated than most G&S women; partly because they live in two competing story forms, but also because they live in two competing worlds, 1879 polite society vs. the dangerous, physical, visceral world of zombie hunting. These women have found a way to synthesize those two parts of themselves. Both personas are part of them.

Although, does any of that actually matter in a zombie apocalypse? You'll have to see the show to find out.

Gilbert loved plot twists. He loved subverting his audience's expectations. He also loved toying with his audience's allegiances over the course of the story. In The Zombies of Penzance, this transformation of the Stanley Daughters into zombie hunters, after we've come to like these zombies (we spend a fair amount of time with the zombies before we even meet the daughters), leaves us torn when the conflict comes to a head. Do we really want the zombies to be killed (again)...?

In The Pirates of Penzance, when the story reaches its climax, Frederic's nursemaid Ruth shows up with some important information, which resolves everything quite tidily. I hope Zombies will be lots of fun for people who know Pirates really well, because we will subvert their expectations around every turn as well. There is no Ruth in our version. So when that big moment comes in our version, the hardcore Pirates lovers will have no idea what happens next! I love that.

When I first thought about writing The Zombies of Penzance, I knew I had to make several important decisions. The center of the plot would remain unchanged -- Major-General Stanley doesn't want the title characters to marry his large family. I tested myself by writing the Major-General's big patter song first. The title ended up being, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern-Era Zombie Hunter," which forced me to make the character a retired zombie hunter. But he needed to be older and retired because that character is really passive throughout the whole story; and that also let the daughters become the heroes. I figured out how to resolve the central conflict ultimately, in a parallel but different way from the original. The new resolution is only barely logical and supremely silly, and I think Gilbert would approve.

All these decisions made me realize I no longer needed Ruth. Revealed information can no longer save the day at the end of our story. This is a zombie apocalypse. I spent a long time wondering if I needed the Policemen and I realized it would be much cooler to turn the Stanley Daughters into zombie hunters, and give them all the Policemen's songs. I was worried it would throw the show out of balance, but it doesn't.

In its original form, as The Pirates of Penzance, the story is a satire about the absurdity of class. The big deus ex machine at the end of the show is Ruth revealing that the pirates are all actually "noblemen who have gone wrong." Since they're of the correct class after all, they can marry the daughters.

But The Zombies of Penzance is a satire about Othering, the practice of dehumanizing those not like us, so that it's easier to hate and/or oppress them. (Some might call that America's Pastime.) It's why soldiers usually have derogatory nicknames for the enemy -- it makes them less human and easier to kill without remorse. Today in America, we see on the political right the Othering of Mexicans, Muslims, Gays, the press, and more. As long as people are "illegals" (they're not even worth a noun), it's easier not to be humane to them, not to think of them as families, not to see them the same as the Italian and Irish immigrants a century before. And frequently that Othering is done by those who profess most loudly their Christianity.

In The Zombies of Penzance, the Major-General and his daughters profess loudly and often their Christian beliefs. But in the song "We're Christian Girls on a Christian Outing," they also give us a few hints that their Bible-based morality might be flimsier than they would admit. In fact, several of the things they predict (or warn about) in this song will come to pass by the Act II finale. The contrast among their devotion to the Bible, their burgeoning though still sublimated sex drives, and their ferocious hatred for zombies makes a fun parallel to today's fundamentalist Christians, and their demonizing of gays, atheists, feminists, etc.

It's been cool working on this, taking this piece I love deeply, and making a new piece of art out of it. I often thought of the process as "translating" the story from one form into another. I often thought of a professor friend in college, Norman Shapiro, who translates Feydeau farces (among other things), and the conversations we had about the process -- and art -- of translation. I'm seriously thinking about trying another "new" Gilbert & Sullivan show, but next time, not just a variation on the original plot, but a completely different story. That will be harder to write, but should also be fun.

We open next week! Get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

The New Regional Arts Commission

To our great surprise and horror, after 27 years of funding New Line Theatre, the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) decided not to fund us this season. We were truly baffled by the decision -- we get rave reviews for every show we produce, we have a national profile for both excellence and risk-taking, and Broadway writers periodically come see our productions of their shows, particularly when those shows were destroyed on Broadway, but brought back to life by New Line.

One article about RAC's new direction said, "Among the plan’s recommendations is that arts groups work with local organizations to help solve community problems. Arts groups can play a role with efforts to build affordable housing, improve public safety and other civic initiatives, RAC executive director Felicia Shaw said."

I think this is seriously misguided. You don't drive a nail with a pair of scissors. Same principle here.

Theatre and other art forms often address social and political issues (at New Line, almost always), but it is not the job of an arts organization to build housing or make neighborhoods safe. We are storytellers, not the police and not construction workers. We make our communities better places already by telling important, relevant stories that make people think. Does she not understand that?

Felicia is essentially telling us, though she may not realize it, that if we want to be funded by RAC again, we have to change the nature of what we do, change our mission statement (which does not currently mention affordable housing or neighborhood safety), etc.

In another interview, she said, "The focus of the report is how can the arts play a larger role in making St. Louis a better place to live."

The arts already do that in spades. In every city that creates an arts district, neighborhoods around that district thrive, because the arts automatically make an area a better place to live.

One person commented about all this in a St. Louis Theatre group on Facebook, "I believe though that sometimes we have to go beyond our comfort zone for what the community needs. I think that’s what RAC is trying to accomplish."

But it's not about comfort zones; it's about mission statement. People don't donate money to New Line to build affordable housing; they donate to us to tell them interesting, thought-provoking stories that intersect/interact with the issues surrounding us in the real world.

There's also something much more, much bigger going on here. Felicia's comments reveal something far more concerning, an underlying assumption that the arts are not "enough," that creating art and sharing it with the community, the entire point of a nonprofit arts organization, isn't sufficiently valuable in her eyes; that feeding the soul and the brain and the heart are less worthy endeavors than feeding the stomach.

All this despite the fact that storytelling is one of the most basic, most necessary of human functions. It's how we learn, how we connect, how we cooperate, how we govern, how we record our history and our culture, how we work through problems, how we grow collectively and individually. Storytelling is one of the most basic of human needs, going back to the first pictographs on cave walls.

To disrespect that long, proud, noble history, by telling us we only have value when that storytelling is augmented with "real world" service, is truly disappointing. Felicia obviously doesn't understand that, as important as building houses will always be, just as important is building empathy and understanding and connection, through the very real magic of storytelling. We shouldn't have to help build housing to prove our worth.

Let's look at the IRS and nonprofit status...

1894 – The Tariff Act of 1894 provided the first statutory Federal income tax exemption for charitable organizations: “nothing herein contained shall apply to … corporations, companies, or associations organized and conducted solely for charitable, religious, or educational purposes.”

1909 – The Payne Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909 exempted from a general corporate excise tax “any corporation or association organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes, no part of the net income of which inures to the benefit of any private stockholder or individual.”

But what counts as educational...?

1973 – Revised Ruling 73-45, 1973-1 C.B. 220, holds that an organization formed to develop a community appreciation for drama and musical arts by sponsoring professional presentations such as plays, musicals and concerts qualified for exemption under IRC 501(c)(3).

In other words, the arts are inherently educational. They teach us about life, about our world, about each other, and about ourselves. Even without the express "educational programs" that funders love, the arts are inherently educational. They don't need to add activities in order to serve their communities.

One of Felicia's other focuses is talking about how the arts generate economic activity. That's great, but it also buys into the notion that what we do is not sufficiently worthwhile. We also have to prove that we generate money. Again, how terribly misguided. By accepting that premise, she normalizes the idea that we should measure the arts in dollars.

We shouldn't.

The title of her new plan is chilling:

Arts &
A Creative Vision for St. Louis

The title tells us all we need to know -- that the arts by themselves aren't enough. We have to create "art and..." Also, I love that the "creative vision" is that the creative arts aren't worthy unless they're combined with something else. I love irony.

On the first page of the Plan, it says, "That’s why we are pursuing a cultural vision to benefit and elevate not only the arts and culture in St. Louis but also to benefit and elevate St. Louis." So the art will be elevated by having to take on non-arts projects...?

The Plan summary also says, "But if all people in St. Louis have access to create and engage in the arts, and if the arts are understood and assumed to be for all, not just for some, then the arts can be not only an equalizer but also a ladder to opportunity, a job creator, a bridge between communities, an educational asset, a source of civic pride, an attractor of visitors, a draw for transplants, and a true economic engine."

The arts are already all those things in St. Louis, and have been for quite some time. 

One "Community Leader" is quoted in the report, saying "What is new [in St. Louis] is that if you want to be the creator -- a program, an event -- people aren’t asking for permission as much, they are just making it happen."

That's not new. That's been happening in St. Louis for decades. Anybody remember Theatre Project Company at New City School, the very "alternative" work at the St. Marcus Theatre and the ArtLoft Theatre, City Players at the shut-down Coronado Hotel, the Black Rep at the 23rd Street Theatre...?

Nobody asked permission to start New Line 28 years ago.

At one point, the report says, "Many artists said that they see and experience the same disparities of race, gender, and ability that are pervasive in society in both the nonprofit and commercial arts sectors. Barriers raised by racism and segregation add to the challenges they already face as working artists, further hindering their careers."

That is a real problem. But it's worth noting that New Line regularly has some of the most diverse casts on St. Louis stages, and that's been true for a decade or more. It's extremely rare for a New Line show to have an all-white cast.

But New Line got zero-funded by RAC.

Felicia wants arts organizations to tackle important issues. New Line has been doing that for 28 years. Felicia wants young people and people of color to have the chance to shine. New Line has been doing that for decades. In our last show the actors playing our "royal family" were white, black, and Asian. Felicia wants local ogrniazations to hire local artists. New Line has hired only local artists for 28 years.

But New Line got zero-funded by RAC.

The report says, "The arts are already working at the intersection of health, community and economic development, transportation, tourism, faith, education, and other sectors. But what we heard from participants is that they want to see even more connections between the arts and other nonprofit and social sectors, because they see this as a key way that the arts can help advance positive social change."

You know how the arts can best help advance positive social change, RAC? Changing the way people think, through the most powerful persuader known to humans -- storytelling.

Take for example, the very silly Zombies of Penzance, which we're about to open. I'm sure Felicia would not find our production particularly worthwhile in terms of social service. But if you look closely, Zombies is not just a silly romp; like all of Gilbert & Sullivan's shows, it's a satire. In its original form, as The Pirates of Penzance, it was about the absurdity of class distinctions. Now as The Zombies of Penzance, it's about the "Othering" of people not like us, the way we become "Us" and "Them," the way we see the Scary Other (Mexicans, Muslims, Gays, Transgender Americans, etc.) as less than human, so we can hate and even oppress them without any guilt.

We are in a particularly dangerous time of "Othering" right now, and this story will be particularly potent right now. But it won't help with affordable housing.

In the conclusion of the report, it says, "This process made clear that the time is right for RAC to expand its capacities beyond its role as grantmaker and consider ways to fulfill a bolder mission." RAC has always been much more than just a grantmaker. Under Jill McGuire's decades of leadership, RAC supported the arts community in so many ways, some of which Felicia has already ended.

Why do new people always feel the need to trash those who've gone before? Why did this report need to imply falsely -- and classlessly -- that in the past RAC has done nothing more than disburse grants?

It seems likely that New Line will never again get RAC grants, but we will apply again next year. In the meantime, please support small arts organizations in our area, particularly those several dozen that got cut off by RAC this year.

We will keep soldiering on, and somehow we will make up for the $12,000 per year RAC took away from us. If you think New Line's work is already worthwhile, help us make up for the indignity of this loss by making a contribution to New Line whenever you can.

New Line will continue to tackle the issues of our world, through provocative, intense, and yes, sometimes silly, adult musical theatre. The incredible praise for our work over the years, the rave reviews, the contributions that increase every year, are all the proof we need that we're on the right track.

We open Zombies of Penzance next week! Ticket sales are great! Get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

We Triumph Now, God Only Knows How

We've blocked our zombies and zombie hunters, and we've run the two acts separately. Next week we move into the theatre, and start running the whole show. The vocal music is sounding amazing, in part because we're spending a lot more time than usual reviewing music in blocking rehearsals, which makes the actors so much more comfortable. We're now at that point now where they have to put down their scores, and that moment terrifies some of them.

The score is learned, the show has been staged, and now we put meat on the bones. I realized a number of years ago, that comic book art is a really good metaphor for our creation process. I think that's because comic book art and musical theatre are both (usually) very collaborative work, which ultimately needs to look like it came from one artist.

We block a show relatively fast, and we don't run scenes a lot until all the pieces are in place. I think about that part of our process as my pencil drawing. I define the work ahead and lay down the ground rules. Then together, the actors and I "ink in" my pencil drawing, we add clarity and depth and focus, and we make a lot of choices. Then I sort of stand back and let the actors "color" their performance.

I'm a director who doesn't want to give an actor too much direction up front. I once saw an interview with Hal Prince, where he said that the job of a director is to put everybody on the same road, make sure they all stay on that road and don't stray onto some other road, let them do the work, and then edit and polish that work to create a coherent whole. I love that idea. I firmly believe that our show will be better and richer if the actors actively collaborate with me, actively create our show as much (or more) than I do. It won't be nearly as cool if all the ideas come from me.

That's unnerving for some actors, who'd rather I ink and color their performances. But most actors love the freedom. Then again, freedom isn't free. With great power comes great responsibility. But The Zombies of Penzance is a crazy, meta, artistic tightrope, so that freedom is a little scarier than usual.

I've asked the actors, now that they're comfortable with the music, to really focus on the text, to read it out loud (a good idea with any lyric), to make sure they totally understand everything they're singing (that's not always easy with G&S, or G&S parodies), to think about all the lyrics like they're dialogue, to think about why they repeat things...

But also, we all have to keep in mind that Gilbert & Sullivan operettas are almost entirely about showing how ridiculous we all are (yes, even zombies), and part of that ridiculousness is how Very Seriously the characters take themselves and each other. It's always Very High Stakes, literally life or death -- or undeath -- in our story.

But also...

We always have to keep one eye on the central meta joke of the show -- that this is the most wrong-headed storytelling form possible for telling this particular story. To be honest, that was the biggest appeal of the project for me initially. So we have to underline and revel in that wrongness, in this wild mismatch between our story and our storytelling.

Remember, The Pirates of Penzance was already making fun of the conventions of opera, like almost all the G&S shows do. But with The Zombies of Penzance, we add another meta-layer to it. Here, we're telling a horror story in the language of English light opera. So inside the story, everything is terrifying and insane and literally life or death; but when the actors step outside of the story to directly tell the audience things (which happens a ton!), they're in a quirky, ever so polite English light opera. And yet they're still in character and period the whole time. The actors have to find that dual reality and realize that if they're comfortable with it, the audience will accept it.

I guess our meta-meta musical is closer to The Mystery of Edwin Drood than any other musical I can think of. It's interesting that both Zombies and Drood are American shows based on British sources and British theatre forms.

What makes Gilbert & Sullivan shows work is getting the audience to accept the barely logical reality of the story, to accept the story's usually ridiculous rules and conventions, to care about the characters, no matter how crazy they are. In fact, it's often the most ridiculous G&S characters that we bond with most. The way all that happens onstage is for the actors to live completely and honestly within that crazy reality, no matter how crazy it gets, no matter how tenuous its logic gets. It's just like doing Little Shop of Horrors or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson -- the actors have to make peace with the odd, unconventional rules these shows invent for themselves, and then audiences will do the same.

Actors who don't do musicals often think musical theatre acting is somehow "lesser" -- less serious, less skillful, less honest -- than acting in non-musical plays. The opposite is true. The kind of acting most musicals require (particularly post-1964) is much more difficult, much more complex, and requires more and different training. That's why so many famous actors have sucked in musicals. Our actors in The Zombies of Penzance have a much harder job to do than people realize.

It is a truism of theatre (and I assume other forms) that audiences will follow strong, confident storytelling wherever it takes them. We New Liners have seen that proven over and over again throughout our history, with shows like The Wild Party, Love Kills, Forbidden Planet, Floyd Collins, Passing Strange, American Idiot, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Sweet Smell of Success. But audiences will not follow tentative or clueless storytelling; they will disconnect.

We now have two and half weeks to just run our show at every rehearsal, tweak it, polish it, but most of all, to let the actors collectively find that dual reality, the style and tone, and construct the magic "clockwork" that pulls everything together into a unified whole.

Our intrepid music director Nicolas Valdez and our truly brilliant cast have shaped such a gorgeous musical sound for our show. Now the actors have to put down their scores, so they can explore and invest in these wacky characters and this wild, barely logical story. The sooner they put down the music and the more time they give themselves to play in this world, the richer our show will be.

This is the part where I sit back and let the actors explore. It's the most exciting part.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

A Zombie Hunter's Life's a Bloody Drag

In adapting The Pirates of Penzance into The Zombies of Penzance, part of the process was reverse engineering my crazy meta origin story. Our origin story says that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote The Zombies of Penzance first, but their producer Richard D'Oyly-Carte refused to produce it, so they rewrote it as the now famous Pirates of Penzance.

Just to be clear, that didn't actually happen.

So as I was figuring out how to translate the original story into a zombie story, I was also imagining Glibert's fictional rewrite process. In The Zombies of Penzance, General Stanley's daughters have been raised to be zombie hunters. But when Gilbert rewrote the show as The Pirates of Penzance (are you confused yet?), he couldn't find an equivalent for the daughters as zombie hunters, so he invented the bumbling police. In Zombies, the story begins with Frederic as a freshly made zombie. But since being a pirate isn't a blood disease, Gilbert had to find some other reason for Frederic to be trapped in his pirate family. So he created Ruth, the leap year device, etc. Gilbert even moved a song from Act II to Act I to introduce Ruth.

If you're keeping up... none of the above is really true.

But some of the changes I made as I rewrote the show had a cool, but unintended consequence. By cutting Ruth and the policeman, I made the roles of the Stanley Daughters much bigger and more important. And because of the way it all worked out, we ended up with a cool double-cross on the audience. It was an accident, but I think it will be very effective.

In Act I, the daughters are pretty much the same as they are in Pirates, very girly, very Damsels in Distress. As Act II opens, they seem the same outwardly, but they mention during "Dry the Glistening Tear" that they've been raised to be zombie hunters. And then the next time we meet them, mid-Act II, they're dressed as hunters; and ultimately, the daughters save the day. Almost.

Our audience will start will preconceptions about the daughters, based on knowledge of the period (1879) and/or knowledge of Pirates of Penzance, and Gilbert and Sullivan generally. We won't mess with those assumptions in Act I, but we will comically shatter the audience's preconceptions in Act II, by turning the Good Girls into ruthless zombie hunters who find the slaughter of zombies rather funny. At the same time, the daughters will transform, over intermission, from Gilbert and Sullivan characters into horror movie characters, in a long tradition of kickass female heroes who kill the monsters in horror movies.

And then there are even two more surprise reversals after that, which get our story to its eventual resolution...

I didn't set out to do all that. I just wanted to write a zombie version of my favorite operetta. The idea itself seemed funny, interesting, and wrong in all the right ways. It's the worst possible storytelling form with which to tell a horror story. But however it happened, this is where it took me, and it delights me. I imagine the surprises will be particularly fun for fans of Pirates, who'll be expecting the police to show up in Act II.

But all of that also presents challenges for the women in the show, to find an internal logic that includes both their period-appropriate behavior in Act I and their horror-movie-appropriate behavior in Act II. I think the answer is that these women are both these things. They've been raised by their father, and trained to be killers; and yet they also know there are rules about Polite Society and women's "role" in their culture.

But we get a hint that these are not the blushing flowers of Pirates of Penzance, in Act I when the women almost discuss some sex acts, before Frederic reveals himself and prevents their detour into improper topics. Though they strive to live proper outward lives (as detailed in "We're Christian Girls on a Christian Outing"), there are adventurers and cynics among these women. At the end of "Christian Girls," they sing:
All our lives our Bible has protected us;
For this moment Jesus has selected us
To be paragons of pure,
All of this week, to be sure!
To be paragons of pure,
But predictions would be premature!
Ev’ry moment brings temptation,
And despite our inclination,
Satan could just win and we could
Waltz with sin!

They'll do their best, they're telling us, but they're not promising anything. These aren't the women from Pirates, but we only get hints of that this early in the story. At the top of that same song, we realize how sexual they are, even though most of them don't realize it themselves. Their sexuality is still sublimated, metaphorical:
We’re Christian girls on a Christian outing,
No bad words and please, no shouting,
Far away from male temptation carnal;
Where our nethers never quiver,
By the ever-throbbing river,
Swollen where the summer rain
Comes gushing forth;
Gushing forth in spurts and sputters
Sloshing through the roads and gutters,
Pounding through the virgin hills below us.
Scaling rough and rugged passes,
Working out our shapely asses,
There are greater joys, we know, in purity!

In Act II, we'll find they're not only brave and battle-ready, but also smart and quick-thinking. In this version of the story, without the character of Ruth, it's the daughters who deliver the G&S deus ex machina at the end, to resolve our plot. Although, in true-G&S fashion, there's a second, horror movie deus ex machina right after that...

For people who know Pirates, there are lots of funny moments where the text is almost the same as the original, but just different enough to be funny in this new context. But more fun than that, even if you know Pirates well, you will not know where our story is headed until the very end...

We're still blocking the show, but I cannot wait to share this delicious lunacy with our audiences. We move into the theatre next week! The adventure continues!

Long Live the Musical!

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