Sigh and Shudder with Pleasure

I used to feel so out of control at this point in our process of putting a show together. There are so many moving parts to a musical, so many artists working on it, and only really working together at the very end, i.e., this coming week. But I realized a while back that I've never really been in control of our shows. They aren't mine to control. They belong to all of us who work on them. I'm just the leader of the expedition. I set us on our journey and make sure we stay together and no one gets lost. But I'm not really in control of it.

Believe me.

A director who thinks he's in control of his show will make a less interesting show.

It was when I realized all this, when I understood the massive contribution a good actor will make if you let them create (and the same is true with designers and musicians), when I began to see us all as equal collaborators, each with a job to do, that I started having the most fun. Call it the Tao of Musical Theatre. Wikipedia says, "Tao is not a 'name' for a 'thing' but the underlying natural order of the universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe." Sure sounds a lot like making art.

In the early days of New Line (how crazy is it that New Line has "early days"?), a show (particularly the kind of show we do, like Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, Passion, Assassins, Jacques Brel) felt like a bipolar tiger with a toothache that I was trying to ride. But these days, a show feels more like just an awesome adventure. I think part of that is because I started reading as much as I could about the experimental theatre movement of 1960s New York -- there's so much to learn there! One book in particular, Playing Underground, really opened my eyes to both their methods and philosophy. And so New Line has evolved over time into a hybrid of a regular, small regional theatre and a 1960s New York theatre collective.

It's an awesome place to be.

And part of that aesthetic comes from rock and roll, the American language of rebellion. Most of the shows we produce now are rock musicals. This whole season has been. Mostly because that's where our art form is heading. But you don't work on a rock musical the same way you work on a Sondheim musical. Sondheim is a genius and I love all his shows (and we've produced most of them), but his music is about control. Rock and roll is about wildness and freedom. And unlike non-rock shows, rock musicals are always part rock concert, sometimes more obviously (Passing Strange), other times less so (Next to Normal).

I've been thinking a lot about rock musicals lately and the changes our art form is going through -- all good ones -- and how that affects New Line. Allow me a tangent...

I finally got to watch the season finale of Smash. (Fun side note: Will Chase, who plays Michael Swift on Smash, was the original Rob Gordon in High Fidelity.) I have mixed feelings about Smash. The songs are great, the choreography is great, the cast is great... the plotting and dialogue are serviceable...

But I found myself getting really emotional during the finale -- and that always surprises me when that happens. (Like every year at the end of the Tonys, yes I'm that gay.) But this time I wasn't quite sure why it hit me so hard. The show's plotting was so clumsy. We could see so many plot developments coming a mile away. And we knew from the first episode that Karen would end up being the overnight-star because Katharine McPhee is the name that brought all the American Idol and Glee fans over in the beginning. After all, Megan Hilty is "only" a Broadway star (or at least on her way).

But I knew, watching Debra Messing tell us after the finale that Smash will be back in the fall, as Bombshell goes to Broadway, I knew how much I love that there's a network TV show about making musicals. I love that in the last episode, when Eileen wants Derek to switch Marilyns, he refuses, saying "I am an artist. I am a storyteller." And he isn't being ironic. These characters -- at least some of them -- take quite seriously the act of creating a piece of musical theatre.

It wasn't always like this. Nobody used to take musicals seriously.

I'm not a big fan of Wicked, but I owe that show something. And Hairspray and High School Musical and Legally Blonde, and now Bring It On. For the first time in my lifetime, musicals are becoming mainstream again. Back in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, show tunes were our popular songs. That only changed when rock and roll became America's popular music and the people writing Broadway shows refused to move forward with the rest of the culture. So theatre music and pop music split. Some people (including me, I must confess) thought it was because theatre music was getting more and more sophisticated -- the work of Sondheim, et al. -- and pop music was, by definition, simple, repetitive, primal (which is not to say bad). But the result of this fissure in American music was that I spent much of my life as a musical theatre freak, only occasionally listening to the music all my friends listened to. I was a pop cultural misfit.

But now rock and roll is finally becoming the default language of the musical theatre, and theatre music and pop music are coming together again. And musicals are becoming mainstream again. And young people are in love with musicals again, because the art form now seems relevant to them at long last!

And New Line happens to be exactly in the right place at the right time. While Stages and The Muny continue producing Rodgers and Hammerstein, we produce bare, Passing Strange, Love Kills, Cry-Baby, and coming in the fall, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

How does all this relate to where this post started? It's the rock and roll -- as distinct from Sondheim -- that has given me freedom from perfection and opened me up to the Tao of Musical Theatre. Perfect rock and roll is bad rock and roll. And perfect rock musicals, polished to within an inch of their lives, mass-marketed and commodified, are bad rock musicals. Our goal is truth and authenticity, neither of which is found in perfection because real life is never perfect.

I've always been incredibly proud of the work we've done at New Line over the past twenty-one years, but I am prouder now than I've ever been. I think we often hit home runs these days. And the secret is you don't hit a home run by calculation; you have to feel it. We don't just entertain people; we make them feel something. New Line shows are everything I think our art form has to be to survive and evolve -- adventurous, fearless, ballsy, self-aware, truthful. In a week we open High Fidelity, one of the greatest and purest of the rock musicals. I can't wait to share it with everybody -- this cast is so outstanding and the show is already in amazing shape!

High Fidelity is everything that New Line is about today, all in one show. Maybe that's why I love it so deeply and why I wanted to return to it. Championship Vinyl and New Line Theatre are kindred spirits. When Rob sings about the quirky little store he calls home, I really understand what he's talking about...

Long Live the Musical!


Chris Edgar | May 27, 2012 at 10:31 AM

I definitely appreciate what you say here about being willing to trust that the people you're working with will naturally make a creative contribution without being prodded or controlled. It sounds like that's what allows the process of directing to be fun.