I came to a decision today. Usually in the past, when we were putting together a season, we tried very hard to include in every season one Big Name, like Chicago, Cabaret, Rocky Horror, Hair... And over the years, we've come up with a bunch of shows that are both Big Names and also genuine "New Line shows" -- more than I would have thought possible. Right now, as I work on assembling next season, I've got two shows settled and one more to figure out. And I've been trying to come up with a Sure-Seller for that third slot that still adheres to our mission statement.
There are a few shows that fit the bill but are very old -- Pal Joey (1940), How to Succeed (1961), Sweet Charity (1966). But though we've re-imagined older shows before (The Cradle Will Rock, Camelot, The Nervous Set, Man of La Mancha), next season will be New Line Theatre's 20th season and an older show like that just doesn't feel right. The other two shows we're producing next season are both from the 1970s, although they were both pretty radical for that time. (I've noticed we do a lot of shows from the 60s and 70s, but it's because that was an incredibly active time of experimentation in musical theatre; we do a lot of shows from the 90s for the same reason.) And those two shows make it even less of a good idea to choose an even older show for our third slot.
And then today I realized that some of our best selling shows in recent years have been shows that most people had never heard of, shows like The Robber Bridegroom, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Bat Boy, Floyd Collins. And I think that though a Big Name can help a little, early in the run, it's not really necessary for good ticket sales. What's necessary is really good, bold, surprising theatre that people won't see anywhere else -- because audiences love an adventure, and that generates good word-of-mouth, it generates great reviews, and quite often it also generates repeat customers. We had a ton of repeat customers for Hair, but we also had a lot for Forbidden Planet and Spelling Bee.
A while back I was trying to define what it is that makes a musical a "New Line show." A lot of people in town use that term, but I think it may mean different things to different people. I came up with a few definitions of my own. I think my favorite is that a New Line show is a musical that you'd never think ought to be a musical. But that's pretty general. True, but general.
I think the real definition has more to do with both artistic fearlessness and extreme contrasts (which are related). Many New Line shows are both outrageous and ridiculous and also very emotional and moving. Many of them are silly in the extreme and yet also really smart and about serious issues. Almost all New Line shows operate in the realm of the imagination, with very minimal sets and props, requiring the active participation of the audience, but at the same time also grappling with real and substantial matters. I could list tons of shows that are textbook examples of a New Line Show: Bat Boy, Hair, Urinetown, Forbidden Planet, Johnny Appleweed, Reefer Madness, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Robber Bridegroom...
When I was in college (some of you have already heard this story), my mom wrote to all these theatre and film celebrities and asked them to send me birthday greetings on my 21st birthday. The first one to arrive (to my enormous surprise!) was from Lucie Arnaz and Laurence Luckinbill. Lucie wrote the nicest two-page letter, very sweet, very encouraging to this young theatre freak... and then Larry wrote a P.S. that changed my life. He wrote, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it." That never left my mind from that day to this. And years later, it became the animating force behind the creation of New Line Theatre.
But sometimes I have to be reminded of that. We were trying to find Big Names because we were scared our audiences weren't adventurous enough to come see shows they've never heard of. Except they do. All the time. Sometimes more than once. That's the only reason we're still in business today, after nineteen years.
So I stand reminded. Trust the audience. They trust us, after all.
Long Live the Musical!