The People's Voice

Last night I started watching this three-part PBS special, Broadway or Bust, about this national musical theatre competition in NYC for high school performers. I have mixed feelings about this show. I love it anytime musical theatre makes it into mainstream culture, but I hate the idea of competition in the arts. Also, these kids are massively talented and they all seem really great, but it seems none of them understands yet that an actor "gives" a performance. After all, nobody ever says, "Wow, she got a really great performance tonight!" No, you say she gave a great performance.

Making good theatre is not an act of ego; it's an act of sharing.

But nobody has taught these kids this yet. And admittedly, they're teenagers so we should cut them some slack. They're just finding their way. But so often I encounter young people who love musical theatre, and the only path they seem to see is one heading to Broadway – and if they don't make it to Broadway, they think they failed. They're each traveling through their own personal hero myth, and they think their magic amulet (i.e., light saber, ruby slippers) is a great singing voice, but it's really just honesty. Elaine Strich and Harvey Fierstein don't have great voices, but they've got honesty.

Besides, so few people ever work on Broadway that turning that into an end-all-be-all is pretty self-destructive. And let's be honest, a lot of the work on Broadway is shallow and bland. Only some of the greatest works of the art form ever find commercial success in the now very tourist-centric industry of commercial New York theatre. Broadway is no longer the pinnacle of the art form, as it was in the 1940s through the 1970s; now it's just the commercial arm of the art form. After all, doing great work is exhilarating no matter where you do it. The question is: do these kids want to do great work with other great artists or do they want to be Stars? The answer to that is everything.

After all, Snookie is a star. Is that really something to aspire to...?

When young people ask me about working in musical theatre, I try to convince them that the goal should be to do great work and connect powerfully with lots of audiences, not to "make it" in just one tiny sliver of the art form in one city. Broadway and off-Broadway productions are only the thinnest slice of musical theatre in America. There are amazing writing, amazing productions, and amazing performances going on all over our country, all the time. Before the mid-1990s, most of us didn't know about a lot of it, but in the Internet Age, it's easy to find out about almost everything that's going on out there. And there's a lot.

Like for instance, New Line's third show this season, the brilliant, adult musical comedy Bukowsical.

Sure, I have a bias on this topic, but I think it's a defensible bias. Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen writes in her wonderful book Directors and the New Musical Drama, “After the pioneering efforts of theatres such as the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York, the idea of the serious nonprofit musical spread to theatres across America during the 1990s. While these shows met with varying levels of economic and critical success, the very existence of this alternative home for the art form began to redefine the musical, offering an alternative to both the traditional Broadway musical and the new West End shows. As the economics of the commercial theatre became increasingly forbidding, the nonprofit theatre became vital incubators for musical drama and nurtured a new generation of musical theatre writers.”

New Line was part of that New Wave in the early 90s. On our website, we say we do "daring, provocative, muscular theatre about politics, sexuality, race, religion, the media, and much more, offering an alternative to the commercial musical theatre of New York and Broadway tours since 1992." Offering to whom? Audiences. It's always about the audiences. The theatre companies that don't get that don't survive long.

And as I think about all this now, I realize my job as director is almost entirely about the audience. Can they see what's going on? Will they hear and understand what the actors say? Will the story be clear to the audience? Will they understand the show's central statement – in the case of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the idea that good and bad are always tangled together, or as I put it more bluntly in another blog post, that sometimes our heroes are assholes. It's all about the audience. As theatre people like to say, without an audience, it's just a rehearsal.

When we stage the curtain call for each show, I always tell the cast the same thing: This isn't the time to be a show-off; this is when we humble ourselves by bowing to the audience, thanking them for their indulgence, for the opportunity to share this story with them, hoping they will like the gift we've given them. It's not about Clap for me!

I know actors often crave attention, and that's often offered as a shallow explanation of why they love to perform. But the truth is, some of the best actors I know are serious introverts. They don't want attention. They want connection. They want that magical alchemy that happens only among live actors, live musicians, and a live audience. When theatre artists say making theatre is a religious experience for them, I think most people hear that as an exaggeration and/or metaphor, but it's neither. It is religious. It is deeply spiritual, communal in the truest sense of the word, as in to commune with. It traffics in Great Truths and higher consciousness, and when the alchemy is right, genuine ecstasy. One of my favorite lyrics from Hair gets at this experience:
My soul is in orbit
With God, face to face.
. . .
On a rocket to the fourth dimension,
Total self-awareness the intention.

No, I'm not talking about scary-magic-daddy-figure-in-the-sky God; I'm talking about what the hippies called the Cosmic Consciousness. Even those of us who don't believe in human religion know there's lots out there we don't yet comprehend. Theatre gets at that stuff. Especially musical theatre, because of the abstract language of music. When you combine the magic of storytelling with the magic of music, you get a pretty potent cocktail – if you can respect it, if you can put yourself at its service. Actor Ben Kingsley says to actors, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it's all about them, when in reality it's all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you."

Sure, we're doing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson because it's crazy amounts of fun for us, but even more because there is important stuff in this show that we want to share with our audience. We New Liners believe live theatre is one of the most powerful tools humans ever created for understanding and self-awareness, and therefore, for social and political change. And we also believe those of us who have been given the gift of talent have an obligation to use this powerful tool to make the world a better place, even if only in small ways, to explore the issues of our times with the people of our region. Acting guru Stella Adler once said, "Unless you give the audience something that makes them bigger – better – do not act."

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is really funny, but it's also a fascinating socio-political mirror, and we would do well to look at it closely. As Mark Twain once said, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." In these politically treacherous times, we all need this mirror more than ever. Politics is important; it's how we decide how to live together. But our politics in 2012 is poisoned. Maybe a knowing glimpse into 19th century politics will give us some insights into our own. We may have lots to learn about ourselves from Jackson and his times.

It's been amazing working on this show during this campaign season, seeing all the resonances between Then and Now. Sometimes, it's almost impossible to tell the difference.

You'll see what I mean when you see the show.

It's completely blocked now, we move into the theatre tonight, and we do nothing now but run the whole show at every rehearsal. This is when the really cool work starts happening. Stay tuned...

Long Live the Musical!

Editor's Note, 2014: Here's a companion post, specifically about the Tony Awards.