High Fidelity

As I do with most musical theatre cast albums (aside from the obviously crappy ones), I pre-ordered the High Fidelity CD on Amazon when it was first announced. When I got the CD, I instantly fell in love with the whole score, but particularly the opening number, "The Last Real Record Store on Earth" -- not only is it great rock and roll, it introduces every major character and the main themes of the show. It's a perfect theatre song, but it's also freakishly catchy. I still find myself listening to that opening number three or four times in a row sometimes...

At first, it didn't occur to me that New Line could -- or would even want to -- produce the show. After all, it had been a disaster on Broadway. But the more I listened to these amazing, funny, smart, original songs, the more I wondered how such a thrilling score wound up in such a bad show. And then I discovered that the playwright David Linsday-Abaire had written the show's script. And I started wondering, what if the show isn't bad, after all...? What if Broadway got it really wrong...?

I put on my musical theatre detective hat (only metaphorically, of course) and started searching the internet. Eventually, I found the show's composer Tom Kitt's band's website. So I emailed Tom and asked about High Fidelity. He sent me the script and I found that it's just as smart and insightful and emotional as the score and as Lindsay-Abaire's brilliant plays.

So we decided to produce the show in summer 2008. We were the first ones to produce it after Broadway.

We assembled a really strong cast (several of whom will return for this New Line revival) and went into rehearsal. I had worked with my lead Jeff Wright already on Grease and Assassins, and his portrayal of John Hinckley was both chilling and heart-breaking. I always knew Jeff was a strong performer with a nice voice, but I had discovered he's also an extremely intelligent and fearless actor. We also had two great comic actors who had only worked with us for about a year, Zak Farmer and Aaron Lawson, who we asked to play themselves... um, I mean... to play the sidekicks, Barry and Dick. Lawson's in Chicago now, but Zak is returning to the role of Barry, and one of New Line's finest character actors, Mike Dowdy, will take over the role of Dick.

The show become so meaningful to all of us as we worked on it. It's so relentlessly truthful and emotional, and though there are plenty of laughs, it's actually a very intense drama that almost everyone can relate to personally. We realized as we worked that High Fidelity is neither a love story nor a musical comedy (the original Broadway production team thought it was both); it's a story about a man who has to learn to grow up. Well, really, three men who have to learn to grow up.

As we worked, I started writing my background and analysis essay about the show, and I kept finding more and more in this material to write about, so my essay grew and grew. Eventually, it ended up in my latest book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.

I had acquired a bootleg video of the Broadway production (shhh, don't tell anybody!), and I found that musical comedy director Walter Bobbie (who had emasculated Chicago with his bland revival) and his Hi-Fi design team had literally ruined the show on Broadway. First, I don't think I've ever seen a show paced faster than this one, almost as if there was a ticking time bomb in the theatre and they had to finish the show before it exploded. I shit you not -- they were racing through this very complicated emotional story, treating it like it was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Young Frankenstein, and they were essentially ignoring everything serious in the script and score. Plus the show had been saddled with enormous, moving, trick sets that looked like they belonged more in a show like Wicked, not High Fidelity.

I was horrified by it all and I think that was the first time that I realized how badly great shows can be misunderstood and mistreated on Broadway. I encountered exactly the same thing when I saw the original Broadway production of Cry-Baby.

Getting Hi-Fi on its feet was hard work but it was so worth it. We all fell in love with the show, and we soon found we weren't alone. Our production sold out all but one night, and it even sold out on the night of the Fourth of July! We had no choice but to do a show that night, but we never thought it would sell out...

And the show's lyricist Amanda Green (in the photo at right, with Tom Kitt) came to see us during the run, and was really happy with our production. Amanda went out to eat with us after the show and she couldn't stop talking about all the things in our production she thought worked better than the original. My impression is that the writing team was not happy with the original production and its icy cold reception, and I think we proved to them that they had written a great piece of theatre; it had just been manhandled in New York.

We got rave reviews, including Mark Bretz in The Ladue News calling our show the best show in St. Louis that year. And Paul Friswold at The Riverfront Times wrote a really smart, really personal, extended "think piece" about the show, and though the RFT wouldn't run his whole review in their print edition, they did put it online. The best part of all (well, one of the best parts, anyway) is that since we produced Hi-Fi, dozens of other companies across the country have come to us to ask about production rights, and we've passed them on to the writers.

We rescued High Fidelity. We resuscitated it. We literally brought it back from the dead. None of the licensing agents in New York would handle it. No one would produce it because it had flopped so badly on Broadway, having run only 19 previews and 13 performances before closing. But we redeemed it. We earned the show the rave reviews it had always deserved. (We hope the same thing will happen now with Cry-Baby, which we just closed a couple weeks ago -- once again in its first production after Broadway and once again to rave reviews.)

Flash forward a few years...

So about a year ago, I was working on setting New Line's 2011-2012 season, and I had both Passing Strange and Cry-Baby in place, but hadn't decided on a third show. I called my perennial sounding board (and New Line board member and my occasional co-director) Alison to talk it through. She noted how much I like coming back to shows I really love and asked if there was a New Line show I was dying to repeat. I didn't even think about it until it was already coming out of my mouth: I wanted to do High Fidelity again. I called Jeff the next day and told him I'd only do it if he returned to it with me. He immediately said yes. Within twenty-four hours I had Zak, Kimi Short (as Laura), Margeau Steinau (as Marie LaSalle), and Todd Micali (as Bruce Springsteen) all on board.

But I also realized that we had so many incredibly talented new actors working with us now and I wanted them to get a chance at this rich, incredible material too. So I slowly assembled a new cast for the show around those returning leads, a kind of New Line All-Stars -- Jeffrey M. Wright (Rob), Kimi Short (Laura), Zachary Allen Farmer (Barry), Mike Dowdy (Dick), Aaron Allen (Ian), Talichia Noah (Liz), Terrie Carolan (Anna), Margeau Baue Steinau (Marie LaSalle), Ryan Foizey, Nicholas Kelly, Todd Micali, Taylor Pietz, Sarah Porter, Keith Thompson, and Chrissy Young. (It doesn't usually work out this way, but half of this Hi-Fi cast was also just in Cry-Baby, which will make rehearsals much more fun and much harder to control.) Amy Kelly will repeat her costuming duties, with Ken Zinkl designing lights, Scott Schoonover designing the set, and Donald Smith designing sound.

Ever since that call to Jeff, we've all been dying to get back to Hi-Fi and it felt like it was taking forever to get here. But this coming Monday, we start rehearsals. I can't wait.

I don't know if I've ever felt as connected to a show as I do to High Fidelity. We are so grateful to Amanda, Tom, and David for trusting us with their baby back in 2008 and we're so proud to have helped this show see the light of day again. It will be so wonderful to dive back into Hi-Fi and see what new treasure we find there...

I truly love my job.

Long Live the Musical!