I realized watching New Line's Grease over the past month that New Line really does have its own aesthetic, its own style, its own feel. Watching our shows will never feel like watching shows at Stages or the Muny or the Rep. We're like the early Steppenwolf or The Actors Gang. Our shows just don't follow the same rules as other companies' shows -- they're not better or worse, but different. I think it boils down to a few factors...
First, we start with the assumption that the material is absolutely great. You'd be amazed how many directors and actors don't start with that assumption. Instead they assume the script or score (or both), are deeply flawed and since these folks think they're more clever than the creators, they think they know how to fix the imagined flaws. They change the order of songs, cut things, add songs from movie versions, sometimes even write new scenes. (A local professional production of Grease did some of these things recently.)
At New Line, we assume that if we don't understand something in a show or if a certain moment isn't working, it's our fault (or more to the point, my fault as director), not the material's fault. And so we keep looking for other ways to approach it, to understand it, and eventually we figure it out. But we don't fix the problem by rewriting the show. Almost every time, it turns out the material is just as strong as we thought it was -- or even stronger, as in the case of Grease -- and we just haven't yet fully understood how it works. I completely restaged the end of Grease the week before we opened -- it had never really worked for me or the actors, but I knew it was our fault, not the show's. And after weeks and weeks of trying to figure out why it wasn't working, I finally Got It. I was trying to figure out how to End the Show instead of trying to figure out where each character had gotten to dramatically. I was working on a logistical issue that was actually a character issue. Once I realized my mistake, another solution was obvious and the ending worked great.
Second, our primary goal at New Line is always the same: figure out what the creators meant to say and then find the clearest possible way to say that. So many directors and actors never even ask that question (particularly when they're working on musicals!), and the result is bland, mindless productions that don't move, delight, or inspire their audiences. Every good piece of theatre has something to say. The director's job isn't to put his "mark" on a show, and it's not to impress the audience -- his job is to tell the story.
Third, we take our time putting a show up, which is a wonderful luxury. We're rarely, if ever, "avant garde," but we are "experimental" in that we love to experiment. Nothing is ever set in stone until we get close to opening. We're never afraid to go back and totally change something we've done, if better solutions present themselves. Again, you'd be surprised how many directors won't do that (often because they don't have the time). It allows the actors and me such incredible freedom -- the Freedom to Fail in rehearsal -- which opens the door to such wonderful experimentation and wild leaps of imagination. Sometimes the leaps don't pay off, and sometimes they pay off in spades. But you only get the good ones if you aren't afraid of the bad ones.
Fourth -- and perhaps most obvious to the audience -- we don't always subscribe to the same aesthetics as everyone else. For some shows, energy and intensity and ferocity and adventure are far more important than polish and precision. Some shows can actually be destroyed by polish and precision -- including shows we've produced, like Hair (obviously), The Robber Bridegroom, Grease, The Rocky Horror Show, and others. For those musicals, we consciously reject mainstream aesthetics, we embrace accident and chaos, we strive for being overwhelming rather than neat and clean. As Robert Lepage says in his excellent book, Connecting Flights, "Chaos is necessary. If there is order and rigor in a project, the outcome will be nothing but order and rigor. But it's out of chaos that the cosmos is born -- This is where true creation lies."
Last, we usually only take on projects that we're afraid of, that freak us out a little. If we know exactly how to make the show great before we even start, we won't end up with a very exciting show. It's the fear, the failed experiments, the struggle that bring real muscle and intensity to our work. I wouldn't have it any other way. I'd just be bored.
Long Live the Musical!