Why Should I Be Frightened?

We started blocking last night. And I find myself in a position that I'm in more and more, lately. We do so many unconventional musicals, shows that are utterly sui generis, and quite a few do not automatically suggest the right approach to staging them. In some cases (Bat Boy, Urinetown, Lippa's Wild Party), the original productions were so good and I learned from them how the shows operate. In some cases, the original productions were awful (High Fidelity, Reefer Madness, Cry-Baby) but I figured them out anyway.

And then there are the shows that are so unique and so outside the normal rules of musical theatre, that I can't really know for sure if I'm on the right road until all the pieces are put together -- which doesn't happen until the week we open! That can be scary. With Love Kills and Return to the Forbidden Planet (in the photo), I literally had no way of knowing if my ideas were going to work. Luckily, they did.

And so here I am again, flying relatively blind. I don't think the off Broadway production of bare was the right approach to the material. The director and designers tried to shoehorn the show into an existing style using existing devices. But bare really is something new. Sure, it's a little like Rent, but in my opinion, it's different enough that the lessons and devices of Rent don't really apply here. After all, as much as I love Rent, it still relied on a lot of the conventions of both old-school musical comedy and Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. I don't think bare does.

There is a new kind of raw rock theatre at the vanguard of the art form now -- shows like bare, American Idiot, Love Kills, Next to Normal, and others -- that prioritizes emotional arcs over narrative. Yes, story still matters in these shows, but it's not as important as the characters' individual emotional arcs. Musical theatre has always done emotion better than non-musical plays, simply because music is an abstract language and so it conveys emotion better than concrete words can. But rock music goes even further than traditional Broadway music in exploring extreme emotion. Imagine the story of Next to Normal set to a Rodgers and Hammerstein score or a Jerry Herman score.

It would suck.

Likewise, conventional staging often doesn't work with this new kind of show. These shows operate partly as rock concert and partly as narrative. (To some extent, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita do the same, both of which we've worked on.) And because this is a show that really isn't like any other in most regards, I need a physical language that isn't like other shows. I think I've found it. I think I'm on the right road. But I won't know for sure until it's too late to turn back and take the other fork. This early in the game, I just can't tell if my ideas are right or not.

But I've learned over the years that my instincts are pretty great. We always find the right answers, even though sometimes it takes some trial and error. And though I periodically find myself in unmapped artistic territory like this, I've learned to trust myself and my inner artistic compass. I may not understand consciously why this approach is right, but it feels right to me, and after thirty years of directing musicals, my gut is almost never wrong. I'll figure out why I'm right later...

That's not to say I won't take some missteps along the way. When we did Evita last season, I staged "The Money Kept Rolling In" three times. When we did The Wild Party, I staged "Come With Me" three times. But the good news is that my instincts tell me when I'm stumbling, and they know when I've stopped stumbling and arrived at the right answer. Or at least a right answer.

With some shows, I know exactly what the end product is going to look like, even if the cast doesn't. I'm lucky that actors trust me and always follow me down whatever odd path I've chosen. With other shows -- like this one -- I have no idea what the end product will look like. But I'm pretty damn sure we're on the right road. So as long as I keep us on that road, I'm pretty sure we'll end up with a powerful, interesting, kick-ass show.

Whenever I ever get scared, whenever I doubt the road we're on, I just picture Luke Skywalker flying in low over the Death Star and I hear Ben Kenobi saying "Use the force, Luke!" In other words, trust yourself. Trust the journey. I'm a big fan of alternative director Anne Bogart and her excellent books, and the greatest gift she ever gave me was to admit in her books that she sometimes has no idea what she's doing. But she has a method for dealing with that moment when she has no clue what to tell the actors -- she gets up off her chair and walks to the center of the rehearsal room, and by the time she arrives she has to say something. It can be bad direction to be fixed later, but she has to offer up something.

It reminds me of a lesson a college writing teacher once taught me about writing shows. If I can't figure out how to write Act I, Scene 1, he advised me to just go ahead and write a shitty version of that first scene so I can go on to the second scene. There's always time later for rewrites. And sometimes what felt shitty as it hit the page looks a lot better the next day when my fear has subsided. But either way, I've gotten myself on the road.

No matter what the problem or obstacle, we can always fix it later. As artists, we have to be comfortable turning away from the conscious brain and turning to The Force. That's often where our salvation lies.

Onward and upward.

Long Live the Musical!