Literally from the first few seconds of the show – when the black-jeaned Jackson snarled to the audience, "I"m gonna stick it in you!" and then at one women in the front row, "Especially you!" – I knew that this was without a doubt a New Line Show and that I really wanted to direct it. There have only been a few shows that hit me that hard, that fast. Bat Boy, Urinetown, A New Brain, but not too many others.
The material is brilliant, bookwriter Alex Timbers' direction was smart and original, and many in the cast were pitch-perfect. But I didn't love everything about the approach, and I knew our production would be different. I blogged about the show that night after I saw it on Broadway, and the only serious complaint I had was that some of the cast were performing a very self-aware, late-nite sketch comedy style, indulging in those anything-for-a-laugh antics that they think are a kind of hipster Brechtian alienation device. And I think that can kill a smart, well-crafted show like this. The legendary director George Abbott said, “If you play it for comedy, it won’t work. If you play it for real, it will.” A piece of theatre this original and this serious-minded (despite the surface wackiness) only gets richer with emotional engagement. Consciously subverting that, either for cheap laughs or artistic pretensions, just doesn't make sense.
William Ball writes in his brilliant book A Sense of Direction, "The director who approaches the script with the intention of making it funny will be seen by the audience in the very way we see a spoiled child who leaps about, flops on the floor, stretches his eyes, pulls his lips, waves peculiar objects -- one may feel impelled to slap him silly as an arrogant, insensitive, nonparticipating, egotistical boor, whose interest lies merely in capturing our attention with no intent to fulfill our needs. We must never get caught trying to be funny!"
And because some in the original BBAJ cast were really great actors, they couldn't help but deliver richer performances. Benjamin Walker in the lead was damaged, sexy-as-shit, fucked-up perfection. His performance put me in mind of a couple other brilliant seriocomic performances that likewise seemed just perfect – Deven May in Bat Boy and Hunter Foster in Urinetown. All three shows are acting tightropes and all three men fully inhabited the characters and universes and weird styles of their respective shows.
BBAJ is a show so smart and so well-crafted that directors and actors just need to trust the material and follow the path the creators laid out for us. More than that ruptures the quirky alternative universe Timbers and composer Michael Friedman have created. I love sketch comedy but sketch comedy is about getting laughs; theatre is about telling a story. They're really different forms. Each one can inform the other, but they have opposing agendas. There is far more to storytelling – even funny storytelling – than laughs.
So we'll follow what I think of as the Bat Boy Rules – the philosophy articulated by one of the Bat Boy creators at the Actors' Gang in Los Angeles, where Bat Boy first premiered. Director and co-author Keythe Farley developed what his co-author Brian Flemming likes to call the “take-it-so-seriously-it's-funny-but-it-also-hurts” style of comedy. Farley’s mantra throughout the development process was “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity,” and that has become my my favorite style of comedy, easily applicable to shows as diverse as The Rocky Horror Show, Anyone Can Whistle, Urinetown, Return to the Forbidden Planet, and Cry-Baby. The canvas is bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle. It's a style of truthful acting that marks all the work at the Actors’ Gang – and much of the work at New Line.
It's a style tailor-made for the neo musical comedy. But the key is truthful acting. It's not just about laughs or exaggeration or vulgarity. It's about telling the truth in an extreme style. From the first rehearsal of BBAJ, I told the actors they couldn't use any funny voices or physical humor unless it comes from character. The first priority here is telling a good story and getting the audience emotionally involved in Jackson's wild life adventure; getting laughs is secondary. And particularly with BBAJ, the laughs really will take care of themselves.
there is no right answer. There's only your answer and somebody else's answer, and maybe both are valid and both are brilliant, and they're nothing like each other. That's not scary; that's cool. We theatre artists tend to forget that and give ourselves less credit and power than we deserve.
Second, almost any show produced in a commercial venue will be scarred with artistic compromises. I've heard so many stories from musical theatre writers in New York about certain choices imposed on them by producers and in some cases, explicit demands to Dumb It Down. I can think of at least three shows for which I believe New Line's production was closer to the writers' intent than the original New York production was. I won't say which ones because I'm not supposed to repeat those stories...
As much as I fell in love with BBAJ when I saw it, I think my answers may be a little different. Here's an example, a mini-scene early in the show in which Jackson's parents die...
ELIZABETH: (claps her hands, cheery) So, I've got an idea! Why don't we go down to the crick and gather some – (she stops midsentence, eyes roll back, blood oozes from her mouth.)
(THWING! Suddenly an arrow whisks through the window and hits Andrew's mother in the back.)
COBBLER: Holy Christ!
ANDREW SENIOR: Elizabeth! (She falls forward dead. Andrew Senior rushes to her side.) The cholera finally got to her, son. It's too much. (bursts into tears) It's TOO MUCH!
(THWING! The Cobbler falls forward.)
COBBLER: Son of a –
ANDREW SENIOR: Mother and Mary!
JACKSON: Cholera, daddy?
ANDREW SENIOR: No, no, son. That's the work of injuns!
ANDREW SENIOR: (suddenly with great urgency, grabbing a musket, kneeling next to his son, hand on his shoulder) Why we're gonna beat 'em back like the British, we're gonna drive 'em out like the Spaniards. 'Cuz don't you ever forget, young Andrew Jackson: this is our land. And even the land that isn't our land is the land that shall be our land, so pick up a GOD-damn rifle and make those land-grabbin' Injuns bleed! All of'em! BLEED! (Suddenly, THWING! and he falls flat forward. Arrow in the back, head into the stew. Young Jackson looks at him quietly.)
JACKSON: Mommy? Daddy?
Now, first let's stipulate that's pretty hilarious. But the storytelling is iffy. When I saw the show, knowing almost nothing about Jackson, I thought the Indians had killed his family and that's why Jackson had this lifelong hatred for Indians. I wasn't exactly sure if the running cholera joke (now there's a phrase!) was to make the characters look ignorant or just silly or...?
As I read about Jackson and watched documentaries, I discovered that, no, Jackson's mother did die of cholera and his father died in an accident before he was born. So now I really didn't get the running arrow-in-the-back joke. And I realized I had been totally confused as an audience member when I saw the show on Broadway. So I've been thinking about this scene a lot. I don't want to keep the arrow joke if it's just a cheap gag and it gets in the way of clear storytelling. Storytelling outranks laughs. Or is there something here I'm missing...? I have a feeling this may be one of those things that the original cast came up with in rehearsal, everybody laughed, and so it stayed in the show. I know there are a lot of moments in Bat Boy like that. But if that's the only thing behind it, I don't like it and I don't feel compelled to use it...
So I can have truthful, interesting, and funny, or I can have funny. Hmmmmm.
If the arrow gags are there just to function as a funny, slightly shocking way of showing us the frontier was dangerous, the same gag is repeated later, so that concept won't get lost. I haven't decided absolutely positively, but I think we're gonna go without the arrow gags in the family scene. We'll see how it goes. I think the scene will still both be funny and move the plot forward. If it doesn't work my way, we'll try something else. I think it's healthy that I always wrestle with any deviation from what I know about the writers' original intent – they know the show best – but they aren't the only artists working here. A show isn't theatre on the page. Still, the wrestling keeps me from going off in another direction unless I'm pretty damn sure I know what I'm doing.
I loved the original production and laughed my ass off, but I still prefer New Line's darker, more "serious" style of comedy – more straight-faced, more deceptively subtle – and I know our style fits BBAJ like a leather glove. With studs. Even if it's not how Alex Timbers directed it.
Of course, all of this would go without saying if we were talking about King Lear, The Cherry Orchard, or any other play without music. But a lot of people feel differently about musicals. For some reason, so many directors imitate as slavishly as possible the original productions of shows they direct – in high schools and colleges (which I can understand to some extent), in community theatres, in small professional theatre, in major union theatres, and on Broadway. Part of that is about laziness and/or lack of talent. Part of it is that videos of many famous musicals are readily available and that's just too tempting to pass up (I guess that goes along with the laziness). But part of it is Fear – fear of the adventure, fear of the near miss, fear of Being Found Out. (Bob Fosse, a genuine genius of the theatre, once said that he had a lifelong fear that people were going to find out he wasn't as good as they thought he was. Wow.)
I fought and beat that fear a long while ago. I just do the best work I can, and people like it or they don't. The stakes really aren't that high. Sure, if people hated everything I did, New Line would go out of business, and that would suck. But I stick to what Sondheim says – he doesn't worry if someone likes his show or not, only if he's been clear or not in what he has said. Clarity of storytelling is job one. And also jobs two and three. If the writing is good, the laughs will take care of themselves.
I love Alex Timbers' work, both as writer and director – I also saw Pee-Wee Herman on Broadway, which Timbers directed brilliantly – but the fact is I'm Not That Guy. And our cast is not that cast. Our show will be different from the original. I can't wait to see it take shape. It will be a truly collaborative creation. And it's gonna be a wild, funny ride!
And if anybody can explain to me the narrative value in the arrow gags, I'll happily put them back.
I love my job.
Long Live the Musical!
An after-thought... It's always very hard for me to switch gears from one show to the next. I really live inside a show while I'm working on it and I'm never eager to leave (unless it's really depressing). I realized tonight while writing this blog that I'm finally done with High Fidelity, truly one of my favorite shows ever, but I'm done. I've never actually "caught" that gear change before...