Last night we had our first rehearsal for I Love My Wife, and we are all so excited about it. Every song in the show is amazing, with smart, funny (often dirty) lyrics, and rich, sophisticated music, ranging in style from pure club jazz to 70s pop to funk to rock. And the script is laugh out loud funny, chock full of physical comedy, and such honest (painful?) insight into that culturally chaotic time in the late 70s, when disco had thrown the pop music world into chaos and the peak of the Sexual Revolution had thrown every American social norm into question. Not so different a time from right now.
New Line has produced a lot of shows from the 1960s and 70s -- Cabaret, Hair, Man of La Mancha, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, The Robber Bridegroom, Chicago, Rocky Horror, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Best Little Whorehouse, Pippin, Sweeney Todd... And we're doing two this season -- I Love My Wife (1977) and Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971).
Normally, I'm not a big fan of producing really old musicals. I don't think most of them have much relevance to us anymore. I don't think Rodgers and Hammerstein shows speak to our very different American society anymore. I don't think old-fashioned musical comedies still give the same experience to audiences today living in an age of irony.
The 60s and 70s are different. First, because of the experimental theatre movement that exploded in New York in the 60s, commercial theatre borrowed devices and pieces of philosophy, and Broadway itself became more experimental, with shows like Cabaret, La Mancha, and more than any other show, Hair. The influence of German director and playwright Bertolt Brecht really took hold of the musical theatre around this time as well, in shows like Cabaret, La Mancha, Company, Follies, Chicago, and lots of others.
But that period is also still relevant because we're repeating that social and political history to some extent right now. The 2008 election echoed 1968 in thousands of ways. Many liberals saw Obama as the new Bobby Kennedy, hoping for a chance to finish the work of the 1960s. America suffered through a recession in the 70s just like we are today (caused mainly by high fuel costs and the money pit of Vietnam -- just like today). America was stuck in an unpopular war, just like today. Politically America was completely divided over the fundamental nature of government, just like today. There was profound tension between the races, just like today. Scary fringe political groups were very visible in the 70s, just like today...
Musical theatre, perhaps more than any other art form, records both the historical and emotional aspects of its time. Musicals tell us about the social and political climate of the times in which they first open (even if they're set in another time: Cabaret, for example). And musicals also tell us about the fears, dreams, aspirations, and mood of their times. Some really good musicals maintain that resonance over time -- particularly when they speak to issues that are still with us -- so that shows like Hair and La Mancha and Chicago always speak to us, no matter how distant we get from the source.
And there's one more reason we do a lot of shows from the 60s and 70s. A lot of people help with the selection of our shows, but ultimately, I make the choice. And I think that subconsciously I've been exploring the world into which I was born, trying to understand the culture and times that shaped my life (which is also why I love Mad Men so much). I was born in 1964, so I barely remember the 60s, but I have a clear memory of the 70s. It was a wild, tumultuous, fascinating time in America. And boy, did adults in the 70s hate the 60s! The Rocky Horror Show is an amazingly truthful snapshot of 1970s America -- Frank N. Furter is the insane cultural zeitgeist, Brad is terrified conservative America, and Janet is adventurous, careless, liberal America.
I've realized, prepping for I Love My Wife, that it completes an unofficial trilogy of musicals about the Sexual Revolution. Hair introduced the revolution and its Free Love philosophy; The Rocky Horror Show exposed the revolution's dark underbelly, the dangers of unthinking excess; and I Love My Wife shows us the end of the revolution, going out not with a bang but with a whimper, and its eventual irrelevance to much of America. True, AIDS officially, abruptly ended the Sexual Revolution, but it was already in retreat before that.
I Love My Wife tells a very funny story (with a serious point) about ordinary people who are out of sync with their culture, back in a time when all culture came through a very narrow filter, a time when the culture often led the public, rather than the other way around, a time of Deep Throat and "porno chic," wife swapping, key parties, swingers' clubs, and lots more.
It's going to be such fun digging down into this crazy world, a world both foreign and totally familiar. Right across the Hudson River from the New Jersey homes of our main characters, the famous swingers' club, Plato's Retreat, was at its peak at exactly that moment. Two totally different worlds, right next to each other.
Hmmm.... kinda sounds like America right now...
Long Live the Musical!