My Pain Transformed Into Art

I'm at that place again.

We open in a week. And when we produce our weirder shows (which is a lot of them), this is always the part that's hardest on me -- although it's easier than it used to be. It's a bit nervous-making never being able to see our end product until a couple days before everybody sees our end product, but I have made peace with this process and I survive this period now better than I used to, maybe because almost every show we produce now gets a slew of rave reviews. I guess it's easier to be zen-like when your batting average is as good as ours. We know the process we've developed over the last twenty-one years really works, no matter what kind of show we do.

We don't have most of the pressures of commercial theatre, so our work is often pretty different from the work done in commercial theatres -- we call ourselves an alternative musical theatre company for a reason. We enjoy a pretty leisurely rehearsal schedule and we allow ourselves to discover the work as we make it. Which means we're never chained to any preconceptions before we start about how the show will turn out. This time, with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, we've made the journey, done our best, the show opens Friday, and all we know for sure is, as Buckaroo Banzai says, "Wherever you go, there you are."

Of course, I do have some sense of what we've made. When we did Bat Boy, Urinetown, High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, Return to the Forbidden Planet, our productions were all more serious than the originals. They were still very funny shows, but we also found these serious, intense, sometimes beautiful moments in amongst the zaniness, that upped the emotional quotient and involved the audience more deeply. We didn't set out to do that; it just happened as we discovered these rich, complex shows and followed their stories where they led us. The same thing has happened with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. (Someone taught me years ago what's most interesting is to find what's funny in a sad moment or what's sad in a funny moment.) But when we come at a show from a different angle, that also means we don't have a model to follow. When someone produces a show exactly like its original production (as lots of regional theatres routinely do, especially when there's a video available), there's no mystery about the end product.

But where's the fun in re-doing someone else's work?

We New Liners go off on our own road. We take the words and music and we approach them as if no one has ever produced the show before. Okay, that's not 100% true -- sometimes, having seen the original productions is helpful for me in terms of understanding what the writers intended. But we don't use someone else's staging or design or character interpretation as a starting place. We use the words and music.

In terms of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, our production is going to be less about the arch, "hipster Brechtian" style of the original and more about story. Part of the point of the show in New York was its disdain for Broadway rules about language, storytelling devices, etc. But since New Line shows regularly break most of the rules that BBAJ breaks, we can't rely on the show's original shock value. It takes a lot more than breaking the fourth wall and saying fuck to shock a New Line audience. And I'm not sure shock should be the central agenda of this incredibly intelligent piece of theatre anyway.

As a director I am less interested in devices and effects, and more interested in storytelling. I think Timbers wrote a brilliant script, but when he directed it, he chose to focus more on its anarchy and alienation, and we're focusing more on the powerful contradictions at its center and its insightful resonance for an audience swimming in the politics of 2012. In other words, we're focusing more on the storytelling because that's how we humans make sense of our world and our world could really use some sense-making these days...

I think our audience will feel more for Jackson than they did in the original. I loved Alex Timbers' direction in New York, but we all know there's never only one right answer. (I saw Rent in 1996 right after it moved to Broadway and again last fall off Broadway-- two completely different productions and they were both absolutely amazing.) As much as I love Brecht, Timbers' production was more of an assault on the audience than ours will be. Don't get me wrong, our audience will still be assaulted with the gleeful vulgarity and profanity of the show, but I think our production makes that vulgarity and profanity more intrinsic to the storytelling, more a part of the character and the times, instead of a part of the presentation style. The Broadway production's Jackson was vulgar and offensive more as a meta-theatrical Brechtian device (and believe me, I do love meta-theatrical Brechtian devices!), while our Jackson is vulgar and offensive because he's immature, desperate to entertain, desperate to seem cool and rebellious. Timbers was trying to make provocative theatre; we're trying to tell a provocative story.

The off Broadway and Broadway productions of BBAJ used a highly artificial performance style as a Brechtian alienation device, but musicals have their own built-in alienation device -- the music! There is no "reality" to get lost in when you're watching a musical because a band keeps playing and people keep bursting into song. So BBAJ in New York had a double-layer of alienation operating and it put off their audience. What the creative team didn't understand is that the same thing that gives musical theatre an inherent Brechtian tint is also what subverts Brecht's intent. Brecht wanted audiences to think instead of feel, but music is an abstract language and so it conveys emotion better than spoken words can. Music reminds us of the artificiality and it allows us to tap into deep, universal, human emotions. And most rock musicals double-down on that alienation effect by using most (sometimes, all) of their songs as commentary, stepping outside the reality of the story. Like Brecht and Sondheim, the neo rock musical frequently rejects the fourth wall entirely.

All of this to say that you don't need the intentionally phony acting disguised as hipster Brechtianism. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson works perfectly without it.

And we're about to prove it.

One of the hardest things about a show like this is that most of the actors play multiple characters. It's also what's most fun about performing it. But on Broadway, the characters were much more types and devices than real people. I think that's a valid choice but I also think this writing is strong enough to support much more serious and authentic acting (as it was with the other shows I've mentioned), even inside this wacky, outrageous style. Our agenda never starts with getting laughs; we always start from character and story, and if we've chosen a good show (and we always do), the laughs will take care of themselves. And that approach is more interesting for the actors too. A good actor loves living inside a full character in a fully imagined world. Give him nothing more than a cardboard cutout and gags to play and he has less fun.

A lot of the actors in the show play a dozen or more characters. Some characters only have a line or two. Some have a monologue then disappear. And I've added to the burden by insisting that every character sound, look, and move differently (though those differences can be subtle ones). On top of that, the cultural and political context of the action is both the early 19th century and today. The actors have to blend all that together and come up with characters that make sense, that serve the scene and the show, and that feel honest and authentic to an audience. Plus, in most of the scenes, they also have to be funny.

That's a really hard job.

It's hard in any show, but with most characters in most shows, there's a lot of information (though sometimes hidden) in the script and score that you can use to understand this particular character and this particular world. But with wild ensemble shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, there's often very little info. In this case, we can find lots of historical information, but these characters are often like their real world counterpoints only in essence, in spirit, not always in concrete detail. So historical research is helpful, but it can be a bit treacherous. Timbers' script is about emotional and moral authenticity, not always historical truth. But remember, Shakespeare changed lots of historical facts in his history plays.

Still, the more we learn about the real times and this version of those times, the more our actors are finding reality in even the smaller characters. Sometimes an obvious detail like an accent or a hat makes it easier. But more than anything, it's been work and experimentation.

As it is with many of our shows, I'm not exactly sure what the end product is going to be, because we've gone off on a road parallel to the original. But I do know the road we're on is a good road that will get us to our destination -- clear, entertaining, emotional storytelling. And I've finally learned not to worry about the destination. My job is to put us on the right road and keep us moving forward -- neither of which is an easy job. But when I do that, the end product is always really interesting and really entertaining and really thought-provoking. And besides, if I can imagine it all in my head ahead of time, it wouldn't be much of an adventure or much of a collaboration, would it? The actors and designers bring as much to this as I do.

This cast is great, they've all found this show's special style and tone -- very much an artistic tightrope -- and we've had the luxury of working with both piano and guitar for a couple weeks already, so we'll be adding only drums and bass this coming week as we approach opening night. We got a glimpse of Amy's incredibly cool costumes when we took our PR pictures, Scott's playground of a set is almost finished, and we'll get a look at Ken's lights this Saturday.

Most of my administrative/producer work is done now. I get to be just an artist this week.

Things are going really great. And my brain is really tired. But I still love my job.

Long Live the Musical!