People ask me this a lot: why do you take your shows So Seriously? Why not just lean back and enjoy them? They're just musicals, after all...!
Seriously. They ask me that. And then I pick them up off the floor and apologize for punching them. I tell them that I don't work in the theatre to have fun (though I have a lot of it). I work in the theatre because making art seems to me one of the most important and meaningful things a person can do -- not as important as food and shelter, but important. And when I start work on a really great piece of writing -- and everything we do at New Line is a really good piece of writing -- then I feel this powerful responsibility to make the best theatre I possibly can with this wonderful material.
It's like someone's given me a gift. The Best Toy Ever. Something that feels like it's made just for me. And then I get to play with it for several months. And then I get to share it with hundreds of people. That's the fun part.
I believe the way to make good art is to throw yourself into it with something just short of obsession. Ask our actors -- for every show, I'm reading, watching documentaries, scouring the internet, trying to learn everything I can that relates to the world of the show. I've read a book on daily life during the Inquisition (for Man of La Mancha), a book on German cabaret (for Cabaret), on the history of marijuana laws (for Reefer Madness), on the early Beat writers in New York (for The Nervous Set), the list goes on and on... so many books I would have never otherwise read. But the more I learn about the world of the show, its period, its locale, its context, the more I see the depth and complexity of the piece, and the realer we can make that world for the audience.
And then I try to distill everything I've learned into one of my chapters, which eventually get bundled together to make my next book. My chapters essentially do all (or most) of the dramaturgical work for our production but also, once up on our website or published in book form, for other companies' productions as well. My first book is in its eighth printing now, so there's clearly an appetite for this stuff...
If you want a taste, read my High Fidelity chapter (which will continue to expand probably until we close).
Most of what we learn the audience won't see in one performance. But it does inform the performances, the actors' choices, my choices as director, and hopefully it creates a fuller, realer, richer, more complete universe onstage. I guess it all boils down to finding The Truth. There's nothing more important in a piece of theatre than The Truth. It's not enough to impress the audience, amuse them, make them laugh. We have to show you Truth, or what's the point?
And that's why I take it all so seriously. And really, I could never go back to those days of just staging it and performing it (as far too many people do with musicals). There's so much more to it, and you're missing out on so much fun and joy if you skip that part... That's what I think, anyway...
Long Live the Musical!