Songs for a New World

I've spent my life exploring and promoting the musical theatre, and in my adult life, continually defending the musical theatre as a serious, important, vigorous art form. I sometimes call myself, half-jokingly, the Prophet of Musical Theatre (depends on the shit I'm smoking). So in that vein, here are ten shows you might or might not be familiar with, but should be, shows that are exceptionally cool, fascinating works of the musical theatre, shows that challenge and expand the idea of what a musical can be, and all of which deserve more productions and more attention. (In a few days, I'll make a companion list of cool movie musicals...)

Not incidentally, New Line has produced all but one of these shows. The links go to New Line's webpage for each show. And don't argue with me about what shows are on my list. This is just my opinion -- you're welcome to another...

Kyle Jarrow's Love Kills might just be the most intense, ballsiest piece of theatre I've ever encountered. A four-character walpurgisnacht unfolding almost in real time, it follows two (real-life) teenage spree murderers in the over-night custody of a Nebraska sheriff and his wife, in 1958. The score is an explosion of raw emo rage and deeply felt pain, regrets and delusions, and even a sort of redemption. It's apparently too raw and ugly for the New York commercial theatre to dare, but it is one of the coolest shows I've ever worked on in my life. New Line presented the world premiere of Love Kills in 2009 and got rave reviews for it. There have been a few more productions since then, but not as many as this show deserves. If anybody's ballsy enough to take this one on, you can reach Kyle through his website.

High Fidelity is a brilliant, insightful, funny, truthful, and ultimately joyful celebration of rock and roll and the people who live their lives to it, much more faithful to the original novel than the film version is. (It occurred to me when we did the show in 2008 that the main characters are the people Hedwig is talking to in her rock anthem "Midnight Radio.") It was cursed with a terribly misguided Broadway production, by a director and designers who didn't understand their own show and who apparently mistook these very complex characters and relationships and this often funny but fundamentally serious story for The Pajama Game or Mame. But Hi-Fi is so much more than that, a smart, beautifully, artfully crafted piece of storytelling, by composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, Bring It On), lyricist Amanda Green (Bring It On), and bookwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Good People, Shrek). This is not old-school musical comedy. This is an adult story about a complicated, adult world. And it uses music in ways other musicals don't, exploring the characters through their musical vocabulary and styles, providing rich, often subliminal information about who these people are, what they value, what they want, what they believe in, but also significantly, what they're missing, what they don't know, where they've gone wrong. The music in this show is not just accompaniment, but an evolving, changing character all its own. In some ways, the music becomes the story's antagonist in Act II. The original production staff (and the perhaps understandably clueless critics) thought the show was a romance, even a romantic comedy; but it's actually a classic hero myth. It isn't a story about Rob and Laura; it's about Rob learning to grow up. It's a companion piece to Company.

New Line presented the first production of the show after its aborted Broadway run, we sold out all but one performance, and we got incredibly enthusiastic rave reviews. The Ladue News called our production the best show of the year. Now other companies across the country are finally producing it and productions rights are finally available through Playscripts, Inc.

Bat Boy, created by the dream team of Keythe Farley, Brian Flemming, and Laurence O'Keefe (Legally Blonde, Heathers), is a genuine masterpiece of serious comedy, a laugh-out-loud, outrageous rock and roll satire of American morality, sexuality, politics, and religion; and at the same time, a deeply emotional tragedy about facing the consequences of our choices, about the past never really being past. It's got one of the best scripts I've ever worked on and a score that is unmatched by any other musical comedy, brilliantly crafted and endlessly surprising. Bat Boy is arguably a genuine masterpiece of the neo musical comedy form. New Line has produced this show twice (selling out the entire run both times) and we will produce it again. It elicited from Judith Newmark at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch one of my favorite review quotes ever: “So weird. So smart. So shocking. So entertaining.”

When people ask me what's my favorite musical, the number one spot goes to either Bat Boy or High Fidelity, depending on my mood. No other shows compare to these two...

The Blue Flower is one of the strangest shows I've seen but also one of the most beautiful and most powerful. Jim and Ruth Bauer's rock-country-Kurt Weill score and collage-like script follow a group of artists through the incredibly tumultuous changing of the last century, exploring how the massive, wrenching changes in the world affected their lives, their relationships, and their art. Set a century ago, it also chronicles these times we live in today as powerfully as anything on stage. Its long journey to off Broadway was less than rewarding, with its run there cut short -- again not really a show for New York commercial theatre -- but hopefully it will have a long life in regional theatres and small art theatres around the country. It's a thrilling piece of theatre that adventurous audiences would love to experience. You can hear some of the songs and buy a studio recording of the score on their website.

Might New Line produce it at some point? Yes we might.

bare is yet another show that was not well served in New York. Its brief off Broadway run was the inevitable result of a director and designers who didn't quite know what to do with it. The too-old cast (all looking like they'd just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog) and their terrible soap opera acting didn't do this difficult, tricky show any favors. When taken seriously, it's a powerfully dramatic story about five teenagers in a Catholic boarding school, grappling with their sexuality and the failure of every institution around them. The score is an inventive mix of alt pop and emo rock, though with an harmonic and structural vocabulary far beyond most pop, and yet every song still works as both pop music and theatre music. There is a studio recording available on iTunes, but you'll have to wade through some really bad acting to get at the great music and lyrics. When New Line produced bare here in St. Louis in 2011, not only did people come see it four, five, six times, but we also got audiences from as far away as Seattle, New Jersey, Nebraska, Virginia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. It's a show that requires strong singers who are amazing, truthful actors to keep the story from crossing over into melodrama. But when it's done right, it fucking works! And it speaks to today's youth -- tomorrow's theatre audience -- as powerfully and truthfully as any other piece of theatre I've ever encountered (American Idiot might equal it). One of the reasons we produced bare was to show young audiences that there's a place for them at New Line too.

Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet may be the oddest show I've ever worked on, an early neo musical comedy, but also one of the most fun, coming close to rivaling Bat Boy. It's based on The Tempest and the classic sci-fi film Forbidden Planet which is also based on The Tempest), with a score of classic rock and roll songs from the 1950s and 60s. The dialogue is Shakespeare's, a crazy quilt culled from a dozen or more of the Bard's plays with great skill and wit; the story is wacky science fiction (watch out for the Id Monster!); and the songs include "Good Vibrations," "Teenager in Love," "Great Balls of Fire" (for a meteor storm!), "She's Not There," and others that are all hilariously well integrated into the story, so well integrated you almost can't believe it. It's laugh-out-loud funny but also surprisingly emotional and powerful at the end. I keep lobbying my friends who are high school drama teachers to produce this show -- both kids and parents would absolutely love it, it can be as big or small as they want, and it's a fun, easy introduction to the ever awesome Will Shakespeare...

My favorite review of our Forbidden Plant came from Paul Friswold at the Riverfront Times: "This is no parlor trick of a musical; there's a rich vein of Shakespeare's favorite ingredient -- the wondrous depths of the human heart -- that elevates the show from cunning stunt to artful meditation on the destructive nature of power and the redemptive power of love.”

Oh hell yeah!

Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party is a brilliant, shattering, pulse-pounding thriller set in the decadent demimonde of late 1920s New York. Based on the notorious book-length poem, it captures the potent cocktail of bewildered innocence and worldly cynicism at the fiery peak of the Jazz Age. A stylistic cross between Chicago and Cabaret -- but much, much darker -- it's the story of a sick, destructive relationship between vaudeville dancer Queenie and vaudeville clown Burrs, both intent on hurting each other as publicly as possible. So they throw a party to end all parties, and as the guests arrive, we meet an assortment of people living on the fringes of society, and we can taste the heady blend of tabloid sizzle, hot jazz, and show biz. After a long night of sex, drugs, and drink, Burrs' jealousy erupts and a romantic double-triangle ends in tragedy. This is a smart, tough show with a score that keeps one foot in period jazz and the other in contemporary rock, with a wailing electric guitar continually reminding us that this is Now as much as it's Then. It's a true masterpiece of contemporary musical theatre, and it's a shame that a third of the amazing, almost nonstop score was not included on the cast album.

A New Brain is William Finn's best show. As much as I love Spelling Bee and Falsettos, this is something really special, utterly unlike any other piece of theatre you'll ever see -- funny, sad, crazy, subtle, and so very, very truthful. Semi-autobiographical and defiantly surrealistic, we spend almost the entire show inside the mind of Gordon Schwinn, the central character who collapses in the first scene from an arterial venous malformation in his brain. For most of the evening, we swim around in his head, in half-conscious memory, hallucination, even coma. We navigate talking frogs, sail boats, kiddie TV, overbearing mothers, and surgeons with tickets to Chicago, and we watch this stand-in for Finn as he contemplates his mortality and worries that he'll die without leaving anything of value behind. Despite its darkness and craziness, it manages to be one of the most life-affirming, most heartfelt musicals written in the last two decades, perhaps a show only someone who has actually faced death could have written. I defy you not to be touched by "I Feel So Much Spring."

Two Gentlemen of Verona is a forgotten gem from a rich, adventurous time in musical theatre, the late 1960s and early 70s. Originally intended just to be a production of Shakespeare's play with some new music by Galt MacDermot (Hair), it soon morphed into a wacky, joyful rock musical that beat out Stephen Sondheim's Follies and Grease for the Best Musical Tony. Set in Renaissance Verona and Milan – or maybe it's New York City in 1971 – MacDermot, playwright John Guare (Six Desgrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves, etc.), and writer-director Mel Shapiro took one of Shakespeare's least produced (and messiest) plays and breathed outrageous, new, cross-dressing life into it. It's a smart, high-energy, romantic comedy that explores issues of race, gender roles, the politics of war, and the sad reality that most men really are pigs. The story follows lifelong friends Proteus and Valentine who leave their rural hometown of Verona to experience life in the big city of Milan -- exactly as Shakespeare had done just before writing the original play...

New Line's production of Two Gents last spring got the kind of reviews an artistic director dreams of... Harry Hamm at KMOX said, “Shakespeare has never been this much fun!” Steve Callahan at KDHX called it “the most purely enjoyable evening of theatre I've had in a long, long time.” Christopher Reilly at The Patch said, "It'll be the most fun you have at the theater this year.” Chris Gibson at BroadwayWorld said, “I honestly can't recall when I've ever witnessed an audience laugh at and enjoy Shakespeare more. . . brilliantly executed and funny as hell.”

That's what I'm talkin' about.

Passing Strange was just too adult, too complex, too nuanced, and too artsy to survive the commercial theatre scene in Manhattan, but luckily, Spike Lee preserved the original production on film, and theatres around the country are now picking up the show and giving it the further life it deserves. From the mind of genius singer-songwriter-performance artist Stew and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald, this is a daring new rock musical that blurs the line between rock concert and musical, that takes its audience on a journey across boundaries of time, place, identity and theatrical convention. This is Stew's only partly fictionalized autobiography, the honest, heartfelt, and hilarious story of a young bohemian who charts a course for The Real through sex, drugs and rock and roll. Loaded with poetic, soulful lyrics and overflowing with passion, the show takes off from middle-class America on a worldwide quest for personal and artistic authenticity. New Line's production a couple months ago was showered with raves.

And there are the ten shows. But there's one more, a show that really stands by itself, it's just that cool...

The opening night of Marc Blitzstein's masterpiece The Cradle Will Rock made theatre history -- the only musical ever shut down by the federal government for its subversive political content. (Check out Tim Robbins' film Cradle Will Rock, for the cool backstory or watch original producer John Houseman tell the story.) But this show is also the very first neo musical comedy, decades before the form took hold, as well as a masterpiece of agitprop theatre, every bit as potent now as it was when it opened in 1937. Today in 2011, as Republicans across the country try to roll back union rights, this unashamedly pro-union musical is perhaps more relevant today than at any other time since its creation. Blitzstein called the show “a labor opera composed in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert & Sullivan, Brecht, and agitprop.” Nice mix, huh? It was the first American musical from a truly working class perspective. It laid the groundwork, in its politics and its episodic construction, for later shows as varied as Cabaret, Hair, Pippin, Chicago, Assassins, and Rent. And like Chicago, it is thoroughly of its time and yet it doesn't feel dated. There are just as many whores in politics, religion, academia, and the arts today as there were in the 1930s. As televangelists make millions and live in gilded mansions, as politicians receive gifts and campaign contributions from giant corporations, foreign powers, and other special interests, The Cradle Will Rock will always seem as if it could have been written this year. That's a shame for America, but good for the show...

And here ends my list of the Top Ten... er... the Top Eleven shows that deserve your attention... I'm sure you can think of some others. In fact, I can already think of some others... But we'll leave that for another day.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. After I published this post, I got some very intense and surprising feedback about it, so I wrote about that and what I think it says about the evolution of the art form, in a companion post a few days later...

Also, several months later I wrote another post listing the ten coolest books on musical theatre, as a sort of companion to this list... And then there's also my list of Top Ten Political Musicals...


Chance | December 13, 2011 at 12:02 PM

I enjoyed this read, thoroughly. I ran across your blog after your comment on Dave Malloy's post about a slushy in the face. I'm now subscribed and am going through your past posts.