Here's a glimpse inside the haze-filled labyrinth I call a mind. In case you get lost while we're in here, just remember, head for the nearest musical...
Since we started work on Two Gents, I realize I've been reconnecting with old-school musical comedy. Part of the reason is that I started collecting Broadway poster images I found on the internet, and a lot of them were pre-1940 (here's one example), a few of which I had never even heard of. Another part of it is that I've been watching some really early movie musicals, which had that same manic, wacky energy as the stage musicals of the time. A couple nights ago I watched a documentary about the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, the partly fictionalized biography of George M. Cohan. I hope to watch Yankee Doodle Dandy tonight. I haven't seen it since I was a kid. (And we all know how long ago that was.)
Cohan is, as far as I'm concerned, the creator of the American musical. His shows were so utterly unlike anything else that had come before. They weren't an evolution of earlier forms; they were their own new form: American musical comedy. They were loud, rowdy, rude, wacky, sexy, culturally insightful, and often sentimental. In fact, they were exactly the kind of show we like to produce at New Line, with one big difference: Cohan's shows were about young lovers and misunderstandings. There was very little substance there, but there was something important -- an American voice, an American musical sound, an American point of view, and above all, an elusive quality I call "muscle."
The night before that, I watched my video of Little Johnny Jones, a 1904 Cohan musical, one of his earliest hits, in a production mounted at the Goodspeed Opera House in the early 1980s. It's an incredible production that really tries to reproduce the original as closely as possible (although they cut the original's almost unconnected third act). As silly as it is, it's relentlessly entertaining and fun and intense and so ridiculously American -- not in a faux patriotic way, but in its psyche. The emotions are very big, but very honest. The relationships are drawn in broad brushstrokes, but you believe them. And the values are pure idealized America.
So for the past few days I've been thinking about all this. I remember the last season I worked with CenterStage, in 1991, I directed No! No! Nanette! and I seriously researched the period and the performance style so we could get a real sense of what the show felt like in 1925. I unearthed a lot of information and I think we really found that authentic 1925 musical comedy feel (which is a lot like vaudeville). I'm glad I had that experience (and eight seasons as an usher at The Muny, watching great old shows like High Button Shoes up close) because I really do understand old-school musical comedy deep in my bones.
And I realize now that much of what New Line does is something I'm gonna call "neo musical comedy" (even though at this point it's not entirely "new") -- shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, A New Brain, Cry-Baby, even some older shows like Anyone Can Whistle and The Cradle Will Rock. These are shows that feel like old-fashioned musical comedy, fast, loud, crazy, wacky, but they have a more complex, often darker agenda. The tools that had been used (overly?) sincerely in most 20th century musical theatre are now being used more ironically. There is a revolution afoot. Kander and Ebb are the kings of this kind of show. A lot of their work is a hybrid of the Sondheim concept musical and the neo musical comedy, shows like Chicago, Cabaret, and their recent masterpiece, The Scottsboro Boys.
I think musical theatre writers have finally gotten past the bombast of European pop opera, and are returning home to musical comedy, but all while using the tools and intelligence and ambiguity of very serious, very intense musical drama as well as those of George M. Cohan.
All of this to say that I'm coming back to my roots. I grew up seeing shows at The Muny. Musical comedy was my first love -- The Music Man (I knew the entire "Trouble" monologue by age nine), Hello, Dolly!, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Mame, Off Thee I Sing. After I consumed American musical comedy in great giant gulps, I moved on to the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, then in college on to the concept musicals.
Over the years, my taste has gotten darker and more complex; the dark side is just more interesting. But thanks to some of my favorite writers, I can now merge my adult tastes with my earliest loves. Two Gentlemen of Verona is a perfect example. It's got all the wackiness and high energy of a Cohan musical comedy, inculding young lovers and misunderstandings, alongside the distinctive artistry of Shakespeare and the very dark, ambiguous emotional terrain he's exploring here. (As I type this, I realize a lot of early musical comedies used a lot of Shakespeare's own comic devices.)
Shakespeare was about the same age as Valentine and Proteus when he wrote Two Gents. Shakespeare had not long before come to London from Stratford and was just figuring out his career path. He was these two guys. And he was honest enough to show us the ugly side of young love and infatuation, while being able to step back from it and see how ridiculous love almost always is. We're lucky that someone that young, with that level of artistry and intellect, understood why he should explore that cultural moment. The same could be said about Jonathan Larson and Rent. Both shows are unpolished, a bit awkward, a bit messy, but really honest and really interesting. And we New Liners learned long ago that polish and slickness is one of the least important elements we look at when choosing shows.
Sometimes, polish just hides shallowness. And quite often, the most ambitious, most interesting shows are also the messiest and most flawed. The shows that reach for greatness and fall a little short are always cooler than the shows that reach only for mainstream commercial success. We leave those shows to the theatres with big budgets and thousands of seats to fill.
And we'll keep bringing you the coolest and most fascinating work we can find. We're just about done staging the show, and now is when the real fun starts for me.
Long Live the Musical!