It's a Very Big Undertaking

I've spent the weekend thinking about the show and working out a lot of the blocking. I think our production is going to be more Brechtian than the original, with a clearer distinction between the "real" world and the interior world. The more comfortable and adventurous I get as a director, the more Brechtian my work gets. I think it's just my natural state.

For those who don't generally throw around esoteric theatre terms, "Brechtian" is a style that comes from the German director/playwright Bertolt Brecht (Threepenny Opera), a style that admits the artificiality of the theatre. Brecht's idea was not to let the audience get too emotionally involved in the narrative, to constantly yank them out of the "reality" of the story by continually reminding them that this is just theatre, just actors on a stage telling a story. The really funny part is that Brecht's theories don't really work the way he thought, so good Brechtian theatre often lets you get emotionally involved and engages you intellectually.

There are lots of ways to make Brechtian theatre. In many cases, it's about the actors speaking directly to the audience rather than pretending they're not there. (Spelling Bee does this, but then again, we're at a spelling bee, so of course there's an audience!) But a show like Forbidden Planet does it by using extremely artificial devices -- Shakespearean dialogue and classic rock and roll songs. When Miranda breaks into "Teenager in Love," it pulls the audience out of the story and reminds them of the real world -- while commenting on both the show itself and on the real world context of the song. Instead of feeling sorry for her, you're thinking how funny it is that she's singing this song you know, how strangely perfect the song is for this moment...

Last night I watched a bootleg video (don't tell anyone!) of the new rock musical Next to Normal (with music by Tom Kitt, who also composed High Fidelity). It's an amazing piece of theatre -- powerful, ballsy, darkly funny, incredibly emotional, smart, complex. And a lot of the show is spent with the actors talking directly to the audience. I realize that musical theatre is becoming more and more Brechtian, going back to the mid-90s with shows like Hedwig, Bat Boy, Urinetown, etc. Maybe that's because the conventions of musical theatre are so inherently artificial, that acknowledging that artificiality seems more honest, more authentic somehow, especially in this ironic, self-aware culture of ours. The more a musical admits its artifice, the less the audience feels like it has to "accept" the profound unreality -- the "lie" -- of the musical form.

It's like we're saying to them, "Hey, we know its extremely unnatural to break into song (and harmony and dance numbers), but that's the storytelling language we're gonna use tonight, so go on the ride with us and we promise not to bullshit you."

Spelling Bee is a very complex piece. So silly on the surface, so dark and emotionally messy underneath. It's really going to be fun to stage this and to watch it find its footing over the next few weeks. Luckily, we have a kick-ass cast, and all but two of them have worked with me before, so I know they'll trust me and go down whatever road I lay before us. We have in this cast veterans of New Line's A New Brain, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Johnny Appleweed, Reefer Madness, Rocky Horror, and Forbidden Planet.

They know Brechtian.

Long Live the Musical!