Portrait of a Boy

Sometimes young actors ask me what path they should take to build a career in the musical theatre. But I'm not the best guy to ask because I never cared about the money; I just wanted to spend my life making musicals, wherever and however I could. And also because I never consciously charted a course for myself. I just followed my bliss, as the legendary Joseph Campbell always advised. (I highly recommend the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell PBS series The Power of Myth -- Campbell's ideas have proven really valuable in my theatre work.)

You could argue that I had a huge advantage early on that most people don't have -- an unnatural and profound obsession with musicals. Literally, from further back than I can remember, I have been crazily, passionately in love with musicals. There has never been anything I'd rather do than listen to, watch, read, write, write about, or make musicals. And I can only assume that freakish obsession is why my life has -- often accidentally -- become an amazing lifelong course of study in my chosen art form.

Here's an overview of how I got to be me right here right now...

First, my parents started me on piano lessons when I was four. And even from that early age, they knew they could only keep me interested if one of the pieces the teacher gave me to work on each week was a show tune. I can remember (around age 5 or 6?) pounding out "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof for weeks on end. Drove my mother batshit. They tried to get me to take up trumpet as well in fourth grade, and I stayed with it for three years, but I hated it because I couldn't sing along and it didn't sound anything at all like the cast albums. At least the piano could approximate the sound (most of the notes at least) of the full orchestra. And I could sing along!

When I was a kid, I hated practicing piano. But I'm so glad now that they started me that early. I learned to read music as I learned to read words. Which is why today I'm a pretty outstanding sight-reader. Which is, in turn, why I have no discipline and can never really get myself to practice, because I can get away with sight-reading (except for The Wild Party -- that one I practiced). Which is also why I can direct from the piano for most of the rehearsal process. I really can watch and play the show at the same time.

When I was fourteen, I switched to a new piano teacher, St. Louis jazz pianist Carolbeth True, who taught me how to use the skills I'd learned all those years. Suddenly, I was practicing two or three hours a day, just because I loved it. Best piano teacher I ever had.

Then in high school and college I got my dream job -- ushering at The Muny, the world's largest outdoor theatre. From 1980 through 1987, I wore that godawful polyester red coat in the sweltering St. Louis summer heat so that I could watch musicals every night. It was like the perfect college survey course, planned out just for me. I saw shows I would have never otherwise seen, like Carnival, High Button Shoes, Li'l Abner, George M, Hans Christian Andersen, Shenandoah, They're Playing Our Song, Where's Charley?, The Apple Tree, Funny Girl, Oliver!, and others. And the usher captains were always so cool about stationing me down close to the stage so I could see everything.

In high school, I got to perform in an outstanding survey of the art form, including a classic Cole Porter musical comedy (Anything Goes, 1934), two Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, their first (Oklahoma!, 1943) and their last (The Sound of Music, 1959), a Lerner and Loewe classic (Camelot, 1960), a rock musical (Grease, 1972), and a brand new show, the first one I ever wrote, called Adam's Apple. It was also in high school that I saw Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time, both of which blew my musical theatre mind.

Later on, I would also get to perform in Godspell and to play the role I had always wanted, Cornelius Hackl, in Hello, Dolly!, across from my best friend Chris Penick as Barnaby. But that was the end of my acting career. Directing and writing were a lot more interesting to me.

I went to college at Harvard and discovered only after I arrived that there was no theatre department. So I was a music major instead and it was the best accident so far. I learned music theory and history and they have both been very valuable in the years since. And my sophomore and junior year theory professor was the amazing Peter Lieberson, a composer himself, but also son of Goddard Lieberson, onetime producer of the cast albums of Camelot, My Fair Lady, Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific, West Side Story, and other classics. Peter's mother was Vera Zorina, onetime ballerina and Broadway musical star. Peter really encouraged me as a composer and he taught me an important lesson -- that an artist needs to learn the rules and history of his art form, even though he might periodically reject them, or only call upon them in a pinch.

And another teacher at Harvard, Ann Dhu McLucas (then Shapiro), also took me under her wing and together we created an independent study program for me over several years, analyzing in real depth the scores of quite a few Broadway musicals, laying the groundwork for the books and essays I write today.

Because there was no theatre department at Harvard, the theatre scene was an artistic Wild West. You got whatever space you could and mounted a show however you could. Because of this anarchy, there were 30-40 productions opening each semester, everything from Antigone to Dames at Sea. It was heaven. I produced my shows in common rooms, dining halls, a former library, but never in an actual theatre. Some friends and I started the Harvard Off-Key Musical Theatre Company, though we only produced a few shows. I learned there how to do the kind of low-budget, (almost) guerrilla theatre that would later mark the early years of New Line.

While I was in college, my high school drama teacher Judy Rethwisch and I stared a community theatre group back in St. Louis called CenterStage, active only during the summers until I graduated and we could produce full seasons. Again, though it wasn't intentional at the time, I see now that the shows we were producing were a personal little master class just for me. We did Hello, Dolly!, No, No, Nanette, Carousel, How to Succeed, and other classics, along with some more contemporary shows, like Godspell, Little Shop of Horrors, and Best Little Whorehouse. I had seen these classics at the Muny, but now I could actually work on them and figure out what makes them tick.

And once we were doing full seasons, I started creating these "Tribute" concerts, whole evenings of songs by one writer or team. Sometimes, there'd be historical narration between songs, sometimes just song after song, sometimes with a little staging, often none at all. I created Tributes to Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Sondheim, and later on, a "Tribute to the Rock Musicals" and a "Tribute to the Dark Side." In almost every case, one of my priorities was to recreate exactly as possible each song's original performance, context, staging, etc. I realize now I was working my way through the masters of the art form, learning from them by working on them. Just as music theory students imitate Bach to learn composition rules, I was imitating the masters of my art form for the same reason. Just as I had to take three years of music theory as a foundation, these concerts did the same for me in terms of musical theatre. I continued this series into the early years of New Line.

While I was running CenterStage, I got a job at Dance St. Louis, first as a telemarketer, then as the assistant to the operations manager, and finally as the development director. It was there that an amazing man named Adam Pinsker, DSL's executive director, taught me the finer points of arts administration. He had worked in the field for decades and once again I had my own independent study. And on top of everything else, he let me stay after hours to work on CenterStage stuff.

In 1991 I was ready for adventure. So I left CenterStage and started New Line Theatre, right at the beginning of the new wave of nonprofit "art" musical theatre that swept the country in the early 1990s. By the time I left Dance St. Louis in 1994, New Line was off and running. Within a few years I also began writing articles about musical theatre and in 1996 my first book was published.

It's funny now, looking back, to see how freakishly direct the path has been. And it was almost never because I planned it that way. I believe, like Joseph Campbell, that it's not about charting a course or planning a timetable; it's about following your bliss. If you do what you love most and you do it your very best, good things will result. That being said, I'm aware how lucky I've been all my life to get all the opportunities I've gotten. I was repeatedly in the right place at the right time because I was always following my bliss, never straying from the path for a second.

I remember, right after college, Maritz offered me a job writing industrial musicals, i.e., short musicals for trade shows and conventions about how much GM loves its employees or about how cool the new line of Ford trucks is gonna be. I read some of their previous shows to learn the house style and they horrified me. I couldn't do that. I couldn't write musicals to increase sales or introduce the new line-up. Musical theatre is sacred to me. It's not about selling trucks. So I passed on the job. Best decision I ever made. Worst for my finances.

And so now here I am, waist deep in the most amazing art form humans have ever developed, thinking and talking and writing about musical theatre most of my waking hours. And I get to work with a shitload of incredibly talented, like-minded artists who want to make the same intensely cool, aggressive kind of theatre I do. And we get to work on and share with our audiences brilliant, emotional, original work like Love Kills, Passing Strange, The Wild Party, and bare. And as we work, I get to talk to not only the true geniuses of the art form (Bill Finn, Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, John Kander, Ahrens and Flaherty, etc.), but also its newest voices (Larry O'Keefe, Kyle Jarrow, Andrew Lippa, Tom Kitt, Amanda Green, Adam Gwon,  Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, and others).

It's kinda like someone with a sweet tooth living in a candy store.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're interested, here are other posts about my artistic life and journey...
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals
Suddenly There is Meaning
And as for Fortune and as for Pain
Only by Attempting the Absurd Can You Achieve the Ridiculous
Funny Girl, Whistle, and Fiddler, Oh My!


M. Masi | January 26, 2024 at 11:29 PM

I have got to work with this amazing guy.