Merrily We Roll Along...

2011 was a pretty great year. We produced three very cool shows that people absolutely loved, Two Gents, bare, and Passing Strange. I had a great time in New York this fall and saw five really interesting, exciting shows. It was the year my sixth book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, was published. It was the year I began to more clearly see and understand the tremendous changes happening in our art form -- beautiful, amazing, exciting changes. Like people once watched the end of vaudeville, I can see the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, and I think that's a good thing. Those shows are well-crafted and they served their audiences well, but it's a new dawn, it's a new day, and it's a new art form. It has evolved. Musical theatre is part of popular culture again. Musicals have gotten political again. Things are different. And New Line is up at the front of the parade -- like Stork at the end of Animal House.

Steve Woolf, artistic director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, once told me that often, halfway through a season, he'll realize that the season has an over-arching theme, that all or most of the shows he has programmed explore a similar theme, whether it's money or family or faith or whatever. But Steve says it always comes as a surprise to him -- it's not something he plans. The theme slowly reveals itself over time. Steve is responsible for the theme -- he chooses the shows -- but it's not a conscious act.

Since New Line Theatre has, by design, a narrower palate than the Rep's, it's probably easier to find themes in any given New Line season. You know sex will be there, along with drugs and politics; and topics like violence, obscenity, religion, the creation of art, etc., will often find their way into our work too. The accidental theme of our 2010-2011 season was the destructive power of sex -- I Love My Wife, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and bare.

But looking back on calendar year 2011, I also find something else even more interesting...

This year in world events was one of the most exciting, earth-shattering years I can remember. I was alive for the late 60s/early 70s but too young to be truly aware of what was going on, although my folks did let me watch Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, so I did get a little taste of the period's politics. But 2011 changed everything, and now as a political junkie, I had a front row seat. It started with the Arab Spring (also called the Arab Awakening, which always makes me think of Spring Awakening with burkas), with revolutions and uprisings in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria... the list goes on and on... Everything we thought we knew about the Middle East is now up for grabs. We still don't know what the end result of most of those uprisings will be, but a bunch of dictators are gone...

And then the uprisings spread to Western Europe, to Spain, Italy, Germany, Finland, the UK, and elsewhere -- and these protests were different but also the same -- citizens outraged at growing inequality and apathetic government. And then the Occupy movement began in New York, and quickly spread across our country. All this in the past year...

And what do all these world events have in common? What is everyone so enraged about?

A failure of institutions. 

All the institutions human beings have created to make a "civilized" society, government, religion, education, the media, the market economy, the legal system, the military -- and, some (conservatives) would argue, also the arts and the institution of marriage -- are breaking down. The Tea Party movement is angry over the failure of government, and the Occupy movement is angry over the failure of capitalism. And amidst all this chaos, somehow New Line really captured that zeitgeist in our shows this year. The theatre will not be one of the institutions that fail us, if we have anything to say about it.

Our spring show Two Gentlemen of Verona may have been just a messy romantic comedy as a play, but as a musical it is also about the 1970s-era breakdown of institutions -- which mirrors our own moment -- corrupt politics, an unjust war, the military-industrial complex, arrest without cause (War on Terror, anyone?), and the confusion of sexuality and gender (the Religious Right's worst nightmare). This breakdown of institutions in the show parallels a one-on-one breakdown in civility and empathy among the characters (Tea, anyone?). It portrays a world turned upside down, where nothing is sure or clear, and everyone is out for themselves (what conservatives call "rugged individualism" and what I call "selfishness"). Through our eyes today, Two Gents is America 2011 reflected in a fun house mirror.

I'd like to think our audiences at Two Gents were laughing so hard because they saw real relevance and truth in our wacky story. Or maybe it was just because our cast was full of comic geniuses. Much like audiences for our 2007 production of Urinetown (which should be the Official Musical of Occupy Wall Street, by the way), sometimes people need to be able to laugh at the horrors of our world...

In June we presented a very young but wildly talented cast, led by the truly amazing Mike Dowdy, in the regional premiere of the searing pop opera bare, a show entirely about the breakdown of institutions -- family, education, religion. We watch as the central character Jason pays the ultimate price for those breakdowns. Where Two Gents ended happily, bare did not. But bare's finale did sound a bit like a rallying cry for the Occupy movement that was still three months away from its birth...

        It's so hard to find your way
        When you have no voice to guide you on.

        No voice, no sound. 
        No sound, no words. 
        No words, no song. 
        No song, no heart. 

        One heart, one love. 
        One love, one light.
        One light, one truth. 
        One truth, one life. 
        One voice.

And then in September and October, New Line produced one of the coolest shows I've ever worked on, Passing Strange, another rock musical, about the failure of institutions to nurture and encourage the individual to find his space in the world. Our "Youth" is failed by his religion, his family, his community, his politics, even his art (notably, his drugs don't fail him...), until he finds his own "one truth" and his own "one voice." The Youth may well be first cousin to Pippin, Candide, and other Hero Myth protagonists, but Passing Strange is so utterly unlike any other show I've ever encountered, and our brilliant cast embraced its unique quirkiness and created a piece of rock theatre so beautiful, so thrilling, so deeply emotional. This was the real theatre adventure in St. Louis this fall.

As it always has, the American musical theatre reflects our culture and our times. And because our country continues to fight the decades-long battle between the conformity and control of the 1950s and the freedom and inclusiveness of the 1960s, theatre from the 60s and 70s continues to find relevance in our contemporary world. References to Vietnam in Two Gents were easily translated by our audiences into references to Iraq, just as the failure of the Catholic Church to save Jason in bare reminds us of the Church's other big failure...

I'm so proud of all three shows we produced in 2011, all of them shows that most theatre companies would never even consider producing, and that's a real shame.

And coming up in 2012... 

Our March 2012 show Cry-Baby is a story about judging people based on a false morality, about the condemnation of a community for nothing more than its poverty. Like Jason in bare, every institution fails Cry-Baby Walker, but rock and roll and love will save the day. This is a smart, wise-ass rock musical that wasn't well served by its original Broadway production. We're gonna give it another chance -- we know how to do this kind of work. I think the reason it misfired so badly on Broadway is that the production staff thought it was a musical comedy, but it's not. It's a neo-musical comedy. It's the old-school George M. Cohan-George Abbott-Jerry Herman model with a thick layer of irony and a dollop of Brechtian socio-political commentary on top, like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Little Shop of Horrors, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Lysistrata Jones, and a lot of others.

In old-school musical comedy, the actors are constantly "winking" at the audience. In neo-musical comedy, the actors take the characters and situation so seriously it's funny. The neo-musical comedy has taken the more vaudevillian style of old-school musical comedy and refracted it through it the lens of Brecht, Prince, Sondheim, and Fosse. It's the Age of Irony. I think this is going to become, more and more, the dominant musical theatre form, alongside the dramatic rock opera.

It's hard not to see in Cry-Baby's story of class oppression today's Republican members of Congress who declare that the people who are out of work are just lazy, and that getting unemployment insurance makes them lazier. The show focuses social injustice down to the personal level, and we all feel it. In John Waters' rock and roll fable, the bad kids (the "Drapes") are clearly the Good Guys, and the good kids are obviously the Bad Guys. Like they did with Hairspray -- and a lot like Mark Twain did, now that I think about it -- Waters and his adapters reverse and exaggerate mainstream morality to expose its dark side. If ever there was a musical about the 99%, Cry-Baby is it. (Okay, I guess Urinetown and The Cradle Will Rock are too.)

And then in June, we will bring back High Fidelity, a brilliant, dark, funny piece of rock theatre about a small businessman struggling to keep his small, independent store open. What could be more zeitgeisty than that? This show fights an ongoing battle with Bat Boy for the title of My Favorite Musical. Neither of them ever wins for very long. Hi-Fi was wildly misunderstood by its original production staff but it sold out New Line's entire run in 2008 to cheering, laughing, delighted audiences. Ours was the first production after Broadway and it was so cool for us to be able to deliver the show's creators the rave reviews they deserved. People keep asking us to bring it back, so we will.

And then in the fall, we will open our 22nd season with the most relevant show we've done since Hair back in October 2008. This time, it's the rowdy, riotous, emo rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, about our first populist President and creator of the Democratic party. I'm reading books about Jackson and about the pivotal election of 1828. And sometimes I almost forget that I'm not reading about the Here and Now. The parallels to today are numerous and a little scary...

We can already see that 2012 is going to be every bit as surprising and assumption-shattering as 2011 has been. America -- and perhaps the world -- is at a major turning point. And so is the musical theatre!

I've been on this crusade lately to convince people to stop thinking of the Rodgers and Hammerstein model as some kind of ideal -- because I believe theatre is useless unless it helps us grapple with the challenges and obstacles we face. Humans tell stories to sort out the mess of life, to make some kind of order out of the chaos of our world, to connect us, to help us understand ourselves and the world around us. Rodgers and Hammerstein shows can tell you a lot about America 60-70 years ago, but they don't really tell us much about today. The Stages St. Louis audience (median age about 89, I'm guessing) enjoys the nostalgia of reliving those times, but those of us who didn't live through them the first time find very little of use there...

Meanwhile shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson speak to these times we're living in now...

It's been an amazing year for the New Liners, of rave reviews, enthusiastic audiences, people coming literally from across our country to see us, and many repeat customers seeing our shows over and over... We must be doing something right. And the year ahead looks just as exciting, as challenging, and as mind-blowing, as we continue our 21st season of alternative musical theatre. Beneath the surface of these three comedies lie deep and profound truths about what it means to live in these times. And after all, that's what theatre is for.

Long Live the Musical! And Happy New Year!

P.S. I just now noticed, after posting this, that my very first blog post, back on January 1, 2007 was also titled "Merrily We Roll Along". Full circle and all that.