I am often reminded of how incredibly lucky I am, to have this job, and to be able to do it in a community like this one. All my life, back to my earliest memories as a kid, all I ever wanted to do was make musicals (aside from a slight detour in second grade when I announced to my parents and teacher that I wanted to be a mad scientist). And now I get to do that, alongside some of the most talented, most original, most generous theatre artists I've ever met.
I had been wanting to work on I Love My Wife for a really long time. I think it's such a smart, truthful show and it reveals so much about that tumultuous time in American culture. But not only did I get to work on it, I got to do it with one of those New Line All-Star casts. I can't imagine any other actors in these roles now. As I've said in this blog before, over the last several years I have realized that I absolutely love good actors. I love watching them create, I love the surprises they bring to the process, I love the magic they make on stage every night, and I love watching over a four-week run as the characters get deeper and more real every night, and as little moments get sharpened and tuned.
So let me brag on this cast for a minute...
Todd Schaefer is one of the true Renaissance Men of the theatre. He designs and builds sets, he designs costumes, he writes, he's an incredible scenic painter, and he's one of the best singing actors I've ever worked with. For I Love My Wife, Todd designed our very cool, transforming set and he played the lead -- right after taking on both those jobs in Evita this summer. And he teaches full-time and takes on other projects along the way. I'm not sure when he sleeps. He's brilliant at comedy, he's a great singer, he has this incredible warmth onstage, and audiences absolutely fall in love with him. I'll never pass up an opportunity to work with Todd.
The same is true for Jeff Wright. Not only is he the nicest guy on the planet, but he's also one of the hardest working, most focused actors I've ever met. And he's utterly fearless. He is always ready to try anything I ask of him, no matter how crazy it might be, no matter how far outside his comfort zone it takes him. He really trusts me as a director, and there's no greater gift an actor can give me. And like Todd, it's so much fun to watch him every night make the audience fall in love with him. We realized in rehearsal that Jeff often ends up playing dickheads onstage (even more often than Jeff himself realized), and I admire him so much for taking on those darker roles time after time. But he never steps back from those dark, complex characters the way lesser actors do; he embraces them and fully inhabits them. With every show, he stretches himself, he challenges himself, and he always rises to whatever challenge he faces. There's no other actor I know who puts so much effort into continually learning and improving and growing as an artist. I have so much respect for him.
I've only worked with Sarah Armstrong a few times before (Kiss of the Spider Woman, JC Superstar, and the first reading of Johnny Appleweed), but I sooooo love working with her. She's the consummate professional in every regard. She's utterly fearless and she has the most wonderful, quirky sense of comedy -- yet it's never about getting a laugh, but instead about revealing truth. She achieves an authenticity onstage that is remarkable and that really contributed to the emotional impact of I Love My Wife.
Emily Berry joined us last year for the first time, as Logainne in Spelling Bee, and every night she walked out on stage and the entire audience fell in love with her. She was hilarious as hell but at the same time, it broke our hearts every night when she missed her word and had to leave the stage. It's not easy to do both those things at once. Emily went on to play the adorable Mae in The Wild Party, and she and Zak stopped the show every night with their vaudeville turn, "Two of a Kind." There aren't many comedians as masterful as Emily.
All four of the leads were absolutely perfect for their roles (they say 90% of a show's success comes from casting, and they're right), and all four were so wonderful to work with. I'm always very aware that my ideas and concepts are worth nothing without smart, talented artists onstage making those ideas come alive. These guys are the best! We laughed so much in rehearsal, and that makes the time fly by.
And then there's our Greek Chorus -- three of my all-time favorite guys. Zak Farmer is the Mighty Putty of New Line. We can use him for anything! He can do wacky comedy, intense drama, and everything in between. (He's also been known to fix leaks and repair mugs.) He has a chameleon-like voice that can handle any kind of music, and no matter what a show's style may be, he has an unerring instinct for finding exactly the right tone, style, and size of his performance. He was recently named the best actor in a musical for Love Kills by the RFT's Best of St. Louis issue. He'll be the lead in New Line's Two Gentlemen of Verona in the spring.
Joel Hackbarth is our anchor. He's so utterly dependable both musically and dramatically. And like Jeff, Joel is continually stretching himself and exploring new territory. In The Wild Party, as one of the two incestuous gay brothers (along with the awesome Mike Dowdy), Joel really went outside his own personal comfort zone to play this very flamboyant character (nothing like Joel himself), and proved himself both a strong actor and an amazing comedy partner in his moments with Dowdy. Joel just gets better and more fearless with every show he does. And no one will ever forget Joel in "Everybody Today is Turning On." I start laughing just thinking about it. What a comedy home-run!
And then there's Troy Turnipseed. What a powerful presence this guy has onstage! As hilarious as Troy is in real life, he's totally serious in rehearsal. He works really hard and always delivers a charming, funny, interesting performance. I don't think he knows how great he is or what amazing stage presence he has. And just as Joel and Dowdy were a brilliant comedy duo in Wild Party, Joel and Troy were just as brilliant in I Love My Wife. Their schtick in the song "A Mover's Life" cracked me up every night. And even though Troy has never smoked pot (poor thing!), he was absolutely hilarious being stoned in "Everybody Today is Turning On." There is such joy in this guy and it's such fun to be around that. He never fails to make me laugh, onstage or off. And he's the nicest guy you'll ever meet.
Add to that wonderful cast a kick-ass band playing the cool jazz music of Cy Coleman, led by our new pianist and bandleader Justin Smolik, along with Michael Stewart's brilliant, acrobatic, sexy lyrics. What more could a musical theatre freak like me ever want? There are a few shows that I've been deeply in love with for many years, and when I finally get the chance to work on them, they bring me unparalleled joy. The Robber Bridegroom and The Fantasticks were both like that; and so was I Love My Wife.
I'm very lucky -- not only do I get to work on thrilling material like this, but I get to do it with amazing artists for enthusiastic audiences. Not only do I get to run a musical theatre company, but I get to be as adventurous as I want, and the actors, musicians, designers, and audiences are happy to come along for the adventure.
We knew this show would not sell out every night. We knew some people might not love it -- it's a very odd show about a topic many people probably find uncomfortable. But the real magic of New Line is that we get to produce totally non-commercial shows like this anyway! It's the most wonderful kind of freedom. And I got a dream cast to do it. Take any one of those seven actors out of the mix and the show would have suffered for it. They each brought such energy and humor and joy to our story. And that last necessary ingredient -- the audience -- had such fun with us and gave such joy back to the actors. I could see every night how it energized the cast once they got that first laugh. Many thanks to everyone who came to see us!
So now I get two months off. And Jesus, do I need it. But I won't be too bored. During that time, I'm going to New York to see some shows (and I'll be blogging about them!), then we have the New Line Holiday Dinner on December 7, celebrating our 20th season, and then we start rehearsals again in early January. We've assembled yet another New Line All-Star cast for Two Gentlemen of Verona. I'll blog about that soon...
Long Live the Musical!