You People Think You Know Me

I've been working on funding applications lately, something I really hate a lot. I usually procrastinate till the last minute but I decided I'd try to do them early this year, several weeks before the deadlines, before I get too busy with Cry-Baby rehearsals.

Each year we get written feedback on our applications from the "peer panel" that reviews them. Some of these comments are helpful and some are just weird, but the ones that really bother me are from people who want to cram New Line into some mold they have in their mind and slap some preexisting label on us.

I've learned over the years that it's hard for some people to accept anything that doesn't fit into their existing categories. And of course, New Line doesn't fit into most people's existing categories. I'm constantly getting emails and Facebook messages from young musical theatre lovers who are absolutely astounded -- and thrilled -- that a company like New Line exists. Too many people think musicals are all Rodgers and Hammerstein, Hello, Dolly!, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera. But we're doing musicals like The Wild Party which includes plenty of singing and dancing, but also a rape and an orgy, and Love Kills, about teenage spree murderers. And though we take our musicals very seriously, sometimes they can also be as outrageous as Bat Boy or Reefer Madness. One of the our peer panelists was so desperate to label our company that she referred to us in one of her comments as "avant garde."

Seriously? Nothing we've ever produced even comes close to avant garde. Okay, maybe Jacques Brel...

One panelist wondered why we don't get more kids at our shows, presumably because musicals are Fun for the Whole Family...? (Clearly this person has never bothered to see our shows.) Last year, one of the panelists found it "troubling" that we didn't survey our audience to pick shows. Huh??? If we surveyed our audiences to pick our shows, St. Louis would have never seen Love Kills, Woman with Pocketbook, Return to the Forbidden Planet, High Fidelity, and so many other shows -- or for that matter, Cry-Baby. The idea of an audience survey is built on the false assumption that people are already aware of everything they could possibly like, and we know that's not true. People like what's good; not just what they know. And our job is to find exciting work for them. As Edmund Burke once said, "Your representative owes you not his industry only, but judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." (I only know that quote because it's in 1776.) But too many theatre artists either don't know that's their job or they don't really trust their own judgment...

And I think all this is the reason Cry-Baby was so manhandled in New York. It doesn't fit into any existing categories, other than maybe my newly minted label, "neo musical comedy." The production team (director, choreographer, designers) tried to make it old-school musical comedy, but this is a show that works on two levels from beginning to end, and they were only recognizing the surface layer. They did not understand this show. They tried to make it trendy, self-conscious meta-theatre, where the actors are "commenting" on their characters and their performances, but that's not what this show is either. They tried to make it into one of those shallow-ass revivals (and artistic rapes) of Grease, with castrated, cartoon Greasers and tons of frantic dancing that aims to make you forget how bland everything else is. You can see from my description what a clueless mess it was. The director spent the whole musical just begging the audience for laughs, and that's the last fucking thing John Waters would ever do! John Waters slaps you in the face and then blows cigarette smoke at you. Dammit.

I've been thinking about all this after seeing Sunday in the Park with George at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. These lines always catch me...

Stop worrying if your vision
Is new.
Let others make that decision --
They usually do.
Just keep moving on.

"They usually do." Ain't that the fuckin' truth. All my life people have wanted me to fit some idea they were already comfortable with. And I never could. When I was four, I knew I was going to work in the musical theatre. I started my own theatre company at age 27 and then quit my "real" job six years later. And now for the last twenty years people have tried to make New Line fit into some idea that's easy to understand and file away. But what fun would that be?

I love giving our audiences wildly different experiences, from Love Kills and bare to Bat Boy and Two Gents. You never know what you'll get when you come to a New Line show -- except you know you'll get an adventure. As you will with Cry-Baby...

In the last several years, a few other companies have popped up that are following in our footsteps -- The Music Theatre Company, in Highland Park, IL; Minneapolis Musical Theatre in Minnesota; Kensington Arts Theatre in Kensington, Maryland; Factory Edge Theatre Works in Baltimore; Dreamlight Theatre Company in New York; Musically Human Productions in New York; and Slow Burn Theatre Company in Fort Lauderdale.

Maybe together we can all form our own category...

I think New Line's greatest strength is in taking each show on its own terms. I'm not sure the New York commercial theatre is capable of doing that anymore. They ruined High Fidelity and Cry-Baby both. And New York couldn't sustain runs of either the wonderful Lysistrata Jones or the amazing The Blue Flower.

I never forget that, though I do create a lot in my work, my first job is to follow the road the writers have laid out for us. The show is what they say it is; not what I say it is. It seems New York directors and designers (and producers, I assume) are less willing to do that. And I think that's one of the biggest differences between commercial musical theatre and what we do.

Watch as the New Liners make Cry-Baby work, even though the Broadway team couldn't...

Long Live the Musical!