Give Time a Chance

It's been fun this week watching our show take shape in an early, protoplasmic form. We haven't run the whole show at once yet, but we've run each act separately. And it's looking pretty cool. I'd say we're 80% in control of this beast. Nothing deep and profound happening here yet, but the actors know what they're doing. And the few things they're not sure about, they're figuring out pretty fast. I can see characters and relationships forming...

I feel a little bad for some of the leads. They're doing soooo great, they're off book, and totally on the right road. But I can tell some of them beat themselves up a little bit when they forget a line or a piece of blocking. They keep promising me they'll get it. I know they will. We've got a great cast and nine full run-throughs before we open. No worries here.

We changed one fairly big thing this week. The first scene of the show is a wild, funny, slightly disturbing dream sequence, and at the end of it, I had the cast in a big, musical comedy pose (since of course, Peter's dream is a musical). It was a fun, weird ending befitting a fun, weird dream. But it wasn't as clear as it could be in terms of storytelling. We want to make sure that the audience knows this is a dream; if some of them don't catch that, they'll be confused for the first ten or fifteen minutes and won't be focused on our story. So I went back to my first impulse, to have everyone in the exact same place at the end of the song as they were at the beginning (to show that nothing in this wacky dream actually "happened"), and to make a bigger deal out of Peter "waking up" at the end of it.

Sure, much of the audience probably would have gotten it anyway, but I'd like everyone to get it. As Sondheim likes to say, our most important job is to be clear. Does the audience understand the story we are telling them? If they don't notice that Peter "falls asleep" at the beginning, they'll get this impression of the show as a wacky, surrealistic comedy, which is totally wrong, and then when the tone shifts, they'll be confused and won't be engaged.

Once I saw our revised staging, it was so obvious this was a better choice. Now it's really clear. And now I see that this dream sequence works sort of like the dream ballet in Oklahoma!. It acts as a prologue, laying out Peter's emotional terrain for us, sort of a psychological profile of our hero. We get so much information about Peter that's important for the story, and it's delivered so efficiently and entertainingly (is that a word?), and almost without the audience consciously noticing it. It's a very cool device.

This opening number answers the question I always ask first: Who is the protagonist? Silly question? Not as silly as you might think. You might argue that there are five protagonists here, and I won't totally dismiss that. But a protagonist has to learn something, has to change and grow, has to take a journey/quest of some kind, even if it's an interior one. Jason doesn't do that; Peter does. (It's also true that Ivy and Matt change and learn as well, Nadia less so.) Sometimes it's not obvious who the protagonist is in a show, but once you know, it makes a lot of things much easier, resulting in better work. One good trick is to look at which character is the first we meet and the last we hear from -- that won't always identify the protagonist, but it often does (it does in bare), so it can be helpful.

Case in point: I surprised myself when I was writing my musical Johnny Appleweed a few years ago, and I realized after a while that Johnny wasn't the protagonist; a character named Mark was. Mark was the one who learned and changed and was a different person at the end. Johnny was still the same stoner Obi-Wan at the end that he was at the beginning. And once I realized that, I discovered big structural flaws in the script that were easy to fix. The result was that my quirky stoner narrative was much clearer (well, as clear as a stoner musical can be).

I think a lot of directors make a lot of easy -- and mistaken -- assumptions about shows they're working on. And it's often worse with musicals, because too many otherwise skillful directors turn their brains off when they work on a musical, because, after all, it's only a musical. But because we usually work on less mainstream, more adventurous pieces at New Line, the obvious answers are often wrong. Some folks might think Jason is the hero of bare, but he's not.

So yeah, it's been a cool week and I'm finally feeling immersed in bare. And we've still got three weeks before we open! Imagine the fun we're gonna have!

Long Live the Musical!