In the dressing room last night, before the show, the conversation turned to people's memories of the first musical they ever saw. And I realized I don't have that memory. I can't remember a time before I knew I was in love with musicals. And I mean, crazy in love with them. My family was taking me to the Muny further back than I have conscious memories.
Maybe it's about reaching middle age that's got me thinking about early cultural and artistic influences on me, and how obvious it is now, looking back, that I would become the artist I am today, doing shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, A New Brain, Forbidden Planet, High Fidelity, The Wild Party, Evita...
When I was a little kid, our family albums -- all on LP! -- included a little Sinatra and a smattering of what we now call elevator music, but 90% of it was cast albums. I didn't grow up with kiddie songs -- I grew up with Fiddler on the Roof, Carousel, Camelot, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, Man of La Mancha, Hello, Dolly!, Brigadoon... But now that I think about it, almost none of them were musical comedies. Dolly and The Music Man are the only two I can think of. The rest were serious musicals.
My parents started me taking piano lessons when I was four. I pretty much hated it until I was about 14, but goddamn, I am so grateful to them today for making me do it. Take note of that, any parents with young kids. I remember that to keep me taking lessons and to get me to practice -- only 30 minutes a day, but god, I hated it -- every week my lesson consisted of fingering exercises, a classical piece, and a theatre song. I remember the first "real" (i.e., popular) song I ever learned to play was "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof. I think I spent about a month learning it, and my mother nearly lost her mind listening to me pound those minor chords day after day. But I was in heaven.
With 20/20 hindsight, I see that my taste for musicals with substance and serious, truthful emotion was formed -- accidentally? -- by these early forces.
Later on -- I guess I was about 10 or 11 -- I have a really clear memory of seeing Of Thee I Sing at Affton High School, because my middle brother was in the pit orchestra. My older brother had been in the chorus of all the school musicals (including Hello, Dolly! with John Goodman!), but I don't have clear memories of those. But I remember being thrilled at this incredibly funny, smartass, cynical, absurdist, political -- and brilliant -- musical called Of Thee I Sing. It literally changed my life.
I look at that list of adjectives I just typed and they pretty much describe every show New Line has ever produced. Wow.
Also, around that same time, that same brother accidentally introduced me to 1776. It was being broadcast on TV, but the rest of the family wanted to watch sitcoms. So my brother went upstairs to watch it on his 12" black and white TV. (I'm not sure how he knew about it.) Not long after it started, I came upstairs to see what he was watching. And I fell in love with it. That was the kind of musical I wanted to see. Serious. Funny. Political. Important. Truthful. Soon after, he bought himself the soundtrack, but I played it way more than he did, so he officially gave it to me. I nearly wore the damn thing out.
When I was in junior high, the high school kids came down to do a 30-minute cutting of the spring musical. They had done this before, but this time, the show was Godspell. I had never seen anything like it. It was so crazy and so full of apparent anarchy. It was so free and it felt so contemporary -- which my other favorite shows really didn't. My mom took me to see it at the high school that night. It was my first concept musical and I fell madly in love with it. Later that night, after the show, I asked my mom if we she would drive me to Peaches Records and Tapes (they were open till 1:00 a.m., I think) to get the Godspell cast album on LP. Bless her heart, she put on her shoes and drove me to the store. (A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Stephen Schwartz, composer of Godspell, onstage at the Edison at Washington University. I brought that same Godspell cast album with me and told him that story. I almost never do this, but I asked him to autograph it and he was really cool about it -- I think he was really flattered. )
When I was in high school, I was quite the over-achiever and so I was in the Honor Society. Our assistant principal was from New York, so each spring, some of the Honor Society kids would go to New York for a week to see Broadway shows. Both my brothers had gone. So I went my junior year, and saw seven shows in six days -- Barnum, Deathtrap, Evita, A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, and one more show that would change my life again.
It was the first show I ever saw on Broadway. It was The Pirates of Penzance, with Kevin Kline, Rex Smith, Linda Ronstadt, George Rose, Estelle Parsons, Tony Azito, and Karla DeVtio. At first, I had been pissed that we were going to waste a night of Broadway on an operetta! But I'll never forget that performance as long as I live -- it was outrageous, wild, wacky, rowdy, sexy, aggressive, athletic, smart, sly, and utterly joyful. I'll never forget Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, sword fighting with the conductor, and once Kline knocked the baton out of his hand, the conductor did the rest of the show without a baton. I'll never forget how rowdy the pirates were when they first came onstage, yelling and laughing. I instantly knew this was the kind of musical theatre I wanted to make. It was like The Marx Brothers, The Monkees, and H.R. Pufnstuf, all rolled into one and set to music. Now that I think back, it had exactly the same kind of manic energy that Bat Boy would have all those years later. I was in musical geek heaven. (This cast did a movie version, which was kinda bland, but they finally released on DVD the live stage production, which is totally worth seeing!) I found out many years later that the director of this production, Wilford Leach, had been part of the experimental theatre movement in New York in the 1960s. No wonder I loved his approach!
A few years later, my brother gave me one of those brass keychains in the shape of a theatre ticket -- somehow he found one with The Pirates of Penzance on it. I still carry it.
When I got to college, I discovered that the Harvard Coop (the campus bookstore) had the biggest record department in New England. Seemingly overnight, I introduced myself to Company, The Robber Bridegroom, Little Shop of Horrors, March of the Falsettos, Chicago, Nine, Dreamgirls, Cabaret, Tommy, Pippin, Best Little Whorehouse, The Wiz, How to Succeed, Promises, Promises, Sweeney Todd, and tons of others. All different, all totally unique. The result? When I got to college freshman year, I had 100 cast albums; when I graduated, I had 500.
Looking back, it's so obvious that I would end up doing exactly what I'm doing, artistically. (After all, I was born the year Fiddler on the Roof, Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and the wonderfully bizarre Anyone Can Whistle all opened on Broadway.) I think my less mainstream taste rescued me from the usual yearning to go to New York -- I knew I couldn't do in New York what I can do in St. Louis. And it also gave New Line a personality that's unlike any other company in the region, probably in the country.
And lucky for me, there are a ton of talented actors, musicians, and designers -- and even more important, audiences -- who seem to enjoy this kind of work as much as I do. It's so cool when the universe works out that way.
Long Live the Musical! And God bless St. Louis theatre!
Editor's Note: If you're interested, I wrote another blog post six years after this one, listing every show I've ever seen in New York.