I Went Where the Music Took Me

We've closed High Fidelity and said goodbye to Rob and his friends at Championship Vinyl. I will miss this show so much. It's a remarkable piece of writing, so honest, so funny, so powerfully emotional. One of the reasons the show is so personally powerful to me is that I see Championship Vinyl as an only thinly veiled stand-in for New Line Theatre. I know that's not what David, Amanda, and Tom were thinking when they wrote the show, but they still got it exactly right.

But that's not the only reason I think the show is brilliant and will someday be recognized as one of the greatest works of the American musical theatre in this new millennium. The other reason -- maybe the main reason -- is that the High Fidelity writing team understood that storytelling comes before everything else. You want to connect with me? Tell me a great story. I think there is no more profound human development than storytelling -- it's how we try to understand ourselves and our world, how we record our history, how we grapple with the toughest issues of our times, how we examine what's good and not so good about our culture, how we impart important lessons about life and about living together in a civilized society.

As I have said in this forum before, we storytellers are the tribe shamans, the intermediaries between the natural and spiritual worlds. That's a powerful responsibility.

I was watching Meet the Press last week and realized something really interesting. For those of you who don't know me well, I'm a total political junkie. I watch at least a couple hours a day of cable news political shows (more when I have the time). Strangely enough, I'm an odd mix of cynic and dreamer, so the more I watch C-Span (and I watch it a lot), the more I love our country and our form of government. People think our government can't work anymore, but the truth is we have a really complex and really big and really varied country, so it's always going to be difficult to run it. Right now our country is irreconcilably split, so it follows logically that our representative Congress is too.

And still, I'm continually impressed at how seriously (most of) our elected officials take their jobs and how seriously they try to make our country a better place, even if I may disagree with them on how to do that. (Sure, some in Congress are opportunists and con artists -- I'm lookin' at you, Darrell Issa -- but really very few.) I think the biggest part of why I love politics is that I love people. I love watching the continuous creation and recreation of our civilization and culture, especially from inside this greatest of all human experiments, American democracy. We are an astonishing species.

But I digress.

So I'm watching Meet the Press and the host David Gregory asks the pundits what President Obama has to do to win the Presidential race. And several of them said, Tell the story. In terms of the economy, for example, make it clear what happened, what we're doing about it, and what we need to do going forward. In other words, give us a beginning, middle, and end, such that we will understand something we didn't before. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said that people need a story to understand complicated issues.

And that hit me like a lightning bolt -- that's why theatre has always been fundamental to human culture, why all storytelling is. It's how we humans best take in information because we use multiple parts of our brain in processing the story -- especially if it involves music, because music is an abstract language which conveys emotion far more powerfully than words can, and that emotional power can make quite an unforgettable imprint on an audience. Also, because of the different functions of the left and right brain, most people find it easier to remember things if they're set to music. It's why Schoolhouse Rock works and commercial jingles. It's why we remember so many song lyrics. Historically, most storytelling included music. Only in the last couple hundred years was theatre ever divorced from music. Musical theatre is the theatre's natural state; theatre that lacks music is the anomaly.

But I digress again. Shit. Sorry.

So this need for storytelling, for context, is why we pass down important information in the form of fables and fairy tales and Bible stories, novels and films, plays and musicals. It's why Jesus taught his disciples through the use of parables.

Just tell the story.

There's a great scene in Tim Robbins' film Cradle Will Rock (if you haven't seen it, put it in your Netflix queue now!), in which the staff of the Federal Theatre Project debates the power and perceived danger of art, and they point out that most of what we know of English history, we know from Shakespeare. Except a lot of that is wrong. Shakespeare wasn't trying to get at historical authenticity; he was working toward emotional and psychological authenticity. Facts and truth aren't always the same thing. But today, most of us only know Shakespeare's versions of these events. No wonder the people in power are always afraid of the artists. Especially the fearless artists. We have Power. New Line Theatre has the dubious honor of having had opening night of our 2007 show Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll shut down by a court injunction requested by the Archbishop of St. Louis! They feared us and our art! Pretty fucking cool, no...?

And all this is why audience responded so powerfully to High Fidelity. This is a story that delves into some of the darker corners of human emotion and relationships, a corner where most people try never to go. But everyone who saw Hi-Fi recognized quickly the profound truthfulness in Rob's story. People hurt each other. And most of us never really understand why. High Fidelity tries to get at that why. Late in Act I, before Rob tells us the story of why Laura left him, he makes a request of the audience...
I bet you’re wondering why I’m an asshole. Well, you wouldn’t be the first. I suspect that Laura finally broke down and told Liz what happened. It was inevitable, I guess.
      (sighs – this is hard)
Okay, before we do this, I need you to do me a favor. Just take a minute and think about the top five worst things that you have done to your partner.
      (he waits)
Don't dress things up or try to explain them, just live with them for a moment.
Especially if your partner doesn't know about them.
Got ‘em? Good. Now remember that, and try not to judge me too harshly.

It's a brilliant moment for two reasons. First, it pulls the audience so directly, actively into the moment, in a way that theatre only rarely does. But second, everyone in the audience realizes in this moment that as much as we think Rob is a big dick, we're all Rob now and then. All of us have had to learn how to see beyond ourselves, to be aware of the consequences of our actions (the point of Stephen Sondheim's "No One is Alone"), to think about other people's feelings, not just our own. Some of us learn that as teenagers, most as young adults, some much later, a few never... Late in Act II, Rob tells us, "I've started to make a tape in my head for Laura. Full of stuff she’d like. Full of stuff that’d make her happy. For the first time, I can sorta see how that’s done." In the dialogue I quoted above from Act I, Rob forces self-awareness onto the audience, as he stumbles and struggles to find his way to his own self-awareness. And that act pulls the audience much more powerfully into his journey of self-discovery, because now the audience sees that it's everybody's journey of self-discovery, including their own.

Sure, the songs in High Fidelity are amazing and the dialogue is brilliant, but it's the storytelling that raises it above most other musicals. The original novelist Nick Hornby gets some of that credit, but the show's writing team created a new animal when they adapted this story. I don't know how much was calculation and how much was instinct, but the end product is a real masterpiece of the new rock musical.

It was an incredible honor for us to be the people who brought the show back to life in 2008, but it has been one of the greatest thrills of my life to return to it this season. Honest to god. I think Hi-Fi has replaced both Hair and Bat Boy as my all-time favorite show. It's really that good.

I want to thank everyone who came to see us and share this beautiful story with us over the last four weeks, this cast full of amazing actors with killer voices, our outstanding band, and our smart, insightful designers. What a trip it's been. There are some awesome projects ahead for us -- Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Next to Normal, Bukowsical, and others even farther out in the future -- but I'm going to miss Hi-Fi for a long time. A very long time.

Long Live the Musical!