Bound for that Unknown Place

If there is a primary driving force behind New Line, it's the Rejection of Fear. We laugh in the face of fear. We mock it. We fart in its general direction.

I ask my actors to reject fear, to risk, to experiment, to try things even if they're not sure they'll work. Rehearsal is a time for experimentation and it is a safe place to fail. As the wise men say, only by attempting the absurd can you achieve the ridiculous. We keep all our rehearsals closed to outsiders so it is a safe place for the actors. When they're free to try anything, they're more likely to find those amazing, truthful little moments that make an already great show catch on fire.

But I also ask myself to reject fear, to pursue the path I believe to be the right one, even if I'm not sure how audiences will react to it. With the majority of our shows, I get to a point late in the rehearsal process when I really start to wonder if our audiences will accept the experience we're putting in front of them. Will they feel lost? Will they feel offended? Will they feel cheated? When we do shows like Bat Boy or Urinetown -- and even more so with shows like The Nervous Set and Johnny Appleweed -- I do worry about the reception from the audience.

But my first duty is to the material, to tell the story as clearly and fully as we can. After all, we are storytellers. We have chosen to be an "alternative" company, presenting work other companies won't (or presenting work others may present, but in a very different fashion), and that means audiences who are used to seeing musicals at Stages or The Muny may not like what we create. But I honestly believe that our job is not to give the audiences what they already are comfortable with; it's to give them an adventure, to take them someplace new.

And besides, audiences are like dogs -- they can smell fear! If we back off from a topic or a show because we're worried about audience reaction, if we tone it down or soften it, our audiences will sense that and they'll turn on us. I shit you not. I learned in 1994 with Assassins that if you have the courage of your convictions, if you have artistic balls, your audience will embrace your work. Maybe not every audience member, but the vast majority of them. Audiences want an adventure!

I also reject fear of difficulty or complexity. Urinetown is one of the hardest shows I've ever worked on -- incredibly complex music, a very difficult style to master, and big, complex crowd scenes to stage. But we've tackled Sweeney Todd, Songs for a New World, Passion, Floyd Collins, The Cradle Will Rock, Jacques Brel, some of the most challenging pieces ever written for the stage, and we conquered each of them in turn. Every time a really hard new show presents itself, I get a little scared and then I say to myself, "Ah, fuck it, we did Sweeney Todd, for God's sake!"

The only fear I accept is the fear that we will betray ourselves and our mission, that we will succumb to a fear of rejection. Historically, our most successful shows have always been our most adventurous -- Bat Boy, The Robber Bridegroom, Rocky Horror, Jacques Brel, Hair, and others. It's when we jump off that metaphorical cliff that our audiences most enthusiastically reward us.

Stage and screen actor Laurence Luckinbill once wrote to me, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it."

Amen, brother.

Long Live the Musical!