I've learned over the years that it's really important what I schedule for the first night of rehearsal. I always start off with a song they can learn relatively quickly and then have lots of fun singing it. Last night we started with "A Wild, Wild Party." Then I also usually give them one of the hardest pieces in the show, so they know what they're in for. It sets the tone -- this will be very cool, but we're all gonna work our asses off. Last night, that number was the opening -- really, really weird and creepy, but extremely cool... The cast did great on both of them. But my hands and arms were sore by the end of the night from playing the piano. Who knew I should've gone into training before starting rehearsal...?
I love working on a show this rich and layered and honest. It makes me love this art form even more. It's so wonderful to live inside this beautiful, intricate intertwining of words and music and mood. I really believe making art is how we touch God. And the theatre is my church.
Sometimes people will say to me, "Don't forget -- it's show business." And I say, "No, it's not." I work in theatre, not in show business. And I'm not embarrassed to call it art and to call myself a theatre artist. Lots of theatre people are scared of using those words, but I think we all ought to embrace the art of musical theatre, show it respect, give it only our best, and do our best to move it forward. Today in our ironic, postmodern world, the intensely emotional art form of musical theatre is thriving, growing, expanding its possibilities, exploring whole new universes of storytelling (just look at Hedwig, Passing Strange, Noise/Funk, Spring Awakening). People need it even more now.
And that, I think, is one of the reasons this recent overabundance of musicals that mock musicals really bothers me. For one thing, I was exploring similar territory back in the early 1990s, so it doesn't seem like anything new to me. I came up with an idea for a show during my senior year in college in 1986. My roommate David and I discussed my idea at great length throughout all of senior year -- 'cause it was a complex motherfucker. The premise was this: Jason has figured out that he doesn't exist and is only a character in a musical comedy. Because the people around him do not share this self-awareness, they think he's crazy. Simple enough. But once you start peeling back the layers of this onion, you keep finding complications. We eventually decided that Jason is always aware that he's singing and he can talk with the audience. But the other characters, like all traditional musical comedy characters, cannot see the audience and are not aware that they're singing (or of harmony or choreography). Which makes duets tricky. To them, Jason is literally talking to the fourth wall when he addresses the audience. But does he live this two-hour story over and over every night? If he's aware of the nature of his existence, how much more is he aware of? What exactly is "reality" for him?
The show eventually became Attempting the Absurd, the second show New Line Theatre ever produced, in 1992. Eventually the driver of the plot became Jason's journey to find a place where he can fit in, and he finds it with a friendly community theatre company. But his mother has him arrested on trumped up charges, and at the climax, standing in court, Jason produces the script for Attempting the Absurd, proving to the judge that he's really not crazy and that they all are in a musical comedy. (Cool trivia: Joel Hackbarth, who's in Wild Party, played the judge in Attempting the Absurd.) It really is one of my favorite shows I've written. Maybe someday we'll do it again.
And I think the difference, between what Attempting the Absurd and Urinetown do and what title of show and The Musical of Musicals do, has to do with content versus device. Absurd and Urinetown don't mock themselves or musicals in general; they deconstruct them, they take them apart and play with them, subvert them. And the purpose is not to laugh at musicals but to explore them, for the audience to become aware of all their moving parts in a very Brechtian way, and in the process, to recognize in a new way this uniquely American form of pop culture. The agenda with these shows is awareness.
But with title of show and The Musical of Musicals, the only agenda is to refer to themselves and to other musicals. That's the extent of it. Sure, these shows can make an audience laugh, but that's not hard -- after all, babies and dogs can make people laugh. With these one-joke musicals, the whole show is based on the "joke" that the show REFERS to itself, and that's supposed to be somehow subversive or outrageous. From my (totally biased) perspective, that doesn't make for an evening of theatre. Self-reference goes all the way back to Shakespeare (probably further, but it's been a long time since theatre history class), but an evening of self-reference is not storytelling. It's just showing off.
A big part of my problem with these shows is that, however affectionately, they dismiss musical theatre as something ridiculous. I have discovered such incredible richness and beauty in the musical theatre over the years. This art form continually amazes me with its versatility, its power, its guts, its outrageousness, its gigantic heart. And what I love more than anything else in life is turning other people on to that artistic miracle that a really great musical can be. It's not ridiculous and it's not something to be embarrassed about (which is the most disturbing undercurrent in title of show). Working on a piece like The Wild Party is so thrilling. It's powerful and truthful and subversive and its got jumbo coconut balls. And it makes me really proud of my art form.
I've become a fan lately of a Canadian TV show (on DVD) called Slings and Arrows, set in a regional theatre -- totally hilarious and freakishly true-to-life. And I heard a quote on an episode the other night that struck me as so exactly right...
The Wild Party certainly qualifies. In America in 2010, we all need to ask, "How did we come to this?" And Love Kills, Hair, Spelling Bee, High Fidelity, Assassins, and so many other shows we've done also qualify. Good art makes order out of the chaos of the world. We need that as human beings because there's a lot of chaos out there. We need to confront the dark side, the demons, the devils, and take a look at them square in the eye. We're Luke Skywalker on Dagobah.
I don't think theatre is about technology. It's about what happens right now, in front of an audience. And you can't download it and you can't tape it. Its very essence is ephemeral. It needs to stay the size of a human body, just as loud as a human voice. And its only function, its sole reason for being, is to tell you a story you absolutely need to hear.
I think we're due for a party...
Long Live the Musical!