As we come to the close of 2009, I look back on New Line Theatre's year in musical theatre and I could not be prouder. I absolutely love the work we did this year, and apparently so did our audiences and the critics!
It started in January with our fourth tri-annual concert at the Sheldon Concert Hall, this time cheekily titled A New Line Cabaret, Episode IV: Night of the Living Show Tunes, and once again showcasing sixteen of the New Line All-Stars. Not only was the cast amazing, not only did we get the biggest houses we've ever had for these concerts, but I also think the song list was the best I've ever assembled. Judy Newmark in the Post-Dispatch wrote, "Scott Miller and the New Line All-Stars put together a really fun show last night. Yeah, it’s a musical theater revue – one with some really funny, smart material, a lot of it drawn from shows that New Line has staged in their entirety. . . The stately [Sheldon Concert Hall] and the offbeat material made a great combination, elegant but relaxed – you know, like you have style, but you’re used to it." I love that!
In the spring, we took one of the biggest risks ever, producing the Shakespearean rock & roll sci-fi musical Return to the Forbidden Planet, very loosely based on The Tempest and a half dozen other Shakespeare plays, and using classic rock & roll songs like "Good Vibrations," Shake, Rattle, and Roll," "Only the Lonely," and "The Shoop Shoop Song;" plus some more obscure songs, like "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," "Go Now," and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." The shocking artistry with which these songs intersected this crazy science fiction story blew the minds of most people who saw the show. "Great Balls of Fire" almost felt like it had been written for a meteor shower. "Wipe Out" seemed the perfect music to accompany a blast-off. And "Young Girl" did as much dramatic and character work as any good original show tune.
And what a cast! We didn't have that great a turn-out at auditions, but somehow we ended up with a perfect cast -- six out of ten of them new to our company, including both romantic leads -- all of whom handled the Shakespearean dialogue beautifully, who became rock stars when they sang, and most impressive of all, went from wacky comedy to serious, emotional moments, and back again with consummate skill. I don't think I've ever had that much fun working on a show before, and I don't think we've ever laughed quite that much in rehearsal.
And people just went crazy for this show, some seeing it multiple times. The critics all raved. Paul Friswold wrote my favorite preview for the Riverfront Times' Calendar Pimp: “Remember the halcyon days when we were terrified of the Russians, they were terrified of us, and Shakespeare wrote his first intergalactic R&B hit, 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World?' Sweet fancy Moses, those were the days. Wait, that never happened. Or did it? Yup, looky here: Return to the Forbidden Planet. It's sweet Billy Shakes vs. Golden Oldies vs. Space Age Love Songs. Just what Dr. Tempest ordered."
Judy Newmark wrote in her Post-Dispatch review, "New Line Theatre presents a lot of intriguing work, but now and then it gets everything so right that you're ready to see the show again before you're out of the theater. Hair was like that; Bat Boy, too. And so is its new production, Return to the Forbidden Planet – a smart, giddy, musically ingenious spoof written by Bob Carlton and directed by Scott Miller." Friswold also reviewed the show, writing, "But this is no parlor trick of a musical; there's a rich vein of Shakespeare's favorite ingredient – the wondrous depths of the human heart – that elevates the show from cunning stunt to artful meditation on the destructive nature of power and the redemptive power of love. . . Smart show, smart cast, smart director with an understanding of what's going on under the notes and behind the dialogue – this is what audiences deserve." It was a show that was an unexpected joy to work on (and now one of my favorite 5 or 6 shows I've ever directed), and a really unexpected success commercially.
This summer, we produced a show many of us had been waiting years to work on, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a show so weird, so subversive, so unconventional, and yet so big-hearted and emotional. Again, we had an honest-to-God perfect cast, including a bunch of veteran New Liners, plus some amazing newcomers. Judy Newmark wrote one of our favorite reviews: “This Spelling Bee radiates the goofy, familiar charm of a sketch comedy show that you try not to miss. You know the players; the fun lies in seeing what they'll do this time. . ."
Again, people came to see the show multiple times, and the critics went crazy over us. Mark Bretz wrote in The Ladue News, "All of the stress and self-doubt of puberty are relived in delightfully meticulous and humorous detail in director Scott Miller’s uproariously magnificent production of this surprise Broadway hit from 2005. Miller has assembled a smart and energetic cast who throw themselves hilariously into their squirming roles, while also managing some poignant moments as well. Indeed, this version plays even better than did the touring show at The Fox a year ago." Chris Gibson of BroadwayWorld.com, said the show was "an over the top delight. New Line Theatre's current production is a perfectly cast show filled with moments of high hilarity. . . I can't remember when I've laughed so hard and so long at a show."
And then, probably just to show the world how perverse we are, we switched gears from the wacky hilarity of Forbidden Planet and Spelling Bee to the incredibly dark, incredibly difficult new rock musical Love Kills, exploring two real-life teenage spree murderers and a sheriff and his wife who try to get them to confess. Based on a true story, with a cast of just four actors and a three-piece rock band, this was a hard show to watch. It assaulted the audience. It demanded that they think about things they probably would have rather not thought about.
But it was also brilliant and quite honestly, I think we nailed it. This was a very still show, a very interior show, but the compelling, disturbing, nuanced dialogue was matched by a visceral, powerful rock score that had not even a hint of Broadway in it. This one didn't sell nearly as well as the other two, but the folks who did see it had their minds blown, and pretty much everyone just loved the intensity and honesty of it all. The author of the show, Kyle Jarrow, said, "I was incredibly impressed. You did a fantastic, minimalist production of the piece. Such a pleasure to have my work produced by your fine company!"
The critics also loved it. Paul Friswold wrote in The Riverfront Times, “Love Kills is a gripping and fascinating evening in the hands of director Scott Miller and New Line Theatre." Chris Gibson from BroadwayWorld.com wrote, “I make it a point to seek out productions by New Line Theatre because I know I’ll see something edgy and original, and with the regional premiere of Kyle Jarrow’s provocative work Love Kills they've, once again, fulfilled that desire." Andrea Braun at KDHX-FM wrote, “Watching their story unfold through a raw punk-flavored rock score and fine acting on the parts of all four cast members is sublime. The bad boy of musical theatre is gloriously back!"
And so here we are, at the end of an amazing year for New Line. But the gears continue to turn. We've cast The Wild Party and we start rehearsals in February. We're working on putting together our 2010-2011 season. And we're still in search of a new home, but Washington University is letting us stay in our current space through summer 2011, so the search is less desperate than it was a couple months ago...
So I offer up my profound, heartfelt thanks to all the brilliant actors, musicians, and designers who've worked with us this year, and to the thousands of people who came to see our shows in 2009. What a wonderful place St. Louis is to make alternative theatre. Nine months from now, we'll be celebrating the opening of our 20th season. Holy Shit!
Long Live the Musical!