Hold Me, Bat Boy

Often after a show closes, I get all philosophical.

I also get sad and bored. And stoned a lot. But for the purposes of this blog post, let's just focus on the philosophical.

I've been thinking since we closed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson about New Line and the work we do and the company's improbably long life, having just opened our twenty-second season. I didn't set out to be "alternative" when I started New Line Theatre in 1991. I was working with a community theatre called CenterStage that I had co-founded, but I was looking to be more adventurous than others in the company wanted to be. Though it wasn't conscious at first, when I left CenterStage I was choosing an "alternative" path, away from Hello, Dolly! and No, No, Nanette, and toward shows like Assassins, Anyone Can Whistle, and Floyd Collins. I had been studying -- and loving -- the classics all my life, but I was ready to expand my horizons and challenge both my skills and my preconceptions.

I didn't suddenly hate older, more conventional shows; I just didn't want to work on them anymore. I had learned from them what I could and wanted to move forward to new adventures. Though I hadn't yet started writing my books, I knew instinctively that I was done exploring the past of my art form and wanted to turn toward the future.

That's not to say New Line never produces older shows -- we often do, especially shows from the experimental 1960s and 70s, because those shows (Cabaret, Hair, Jacques Brel, Man of La Mancha, Two Gentlemen of Verona, I Love My Wife, Company, Pippin, Chicago) were moving (or at least, pointing) the art form forward toward the amazing new work that would be done in the 1990s and after, when everything would change -- and the real Golden Age of musical theatre would begin -- and I would fall in love all over again with my art form.

We didn't know it at the time, but New Line was literally at the vanguard of a whole new era in the American musical theatre, when the art form would no longer depend solely on the commercial theatre scene in New York. We New Liners weren't aware of everything going on across the country at the same moment New Line was getting underway (no internet yet), but we were a part of it. The same impulse that drove me and my cohorts toward a new vision of musical theatre was also driving others like us across the country. No one else built a company entirely based on that new vision the way we did, but lots of other artists and companies were part of the movement. Though St. Louis has always been a big musical theatre town, thanks to the Muny and Stages and the Fox, local audiences had rarely seen anything but the most mainstream musicals.

New Line changed that.

We also discovered early on that we weren't going to work like more conventional companies work. From the beginning, we have operated more like the experimental companies in New York in the 1960s, and only a little like today's mainstream regional theatres. That has made it impossible to work with union actors (we tried to make a deal with the union, but they would not bend to accommodate our process), but it allows us a more leisurely, more playful, more analytical, more intellectual, and more artistically pure approach to our work, which in retrospect seems tailor-made for the kind of shows we produce.

Unlike it is with most companies, I direct every show at New Line. It never occurred to me to work differently than we do, partly because there aren't any other directors in town who specialize in the kind of work we do, partly because ours is a company built on a very specific, somewhat unconventional vision and philosophy that comes directly from my own understanding of our art form, and also partly because I literally spend my life thinking, talking, and writing about this kind of musical theatre. New Line shows are more aggressive, more physical, more vulgar, more relevant, more fearless, more emotional, more confrontational, louder, darker, wilder, funnier than the work of most companies in the region.

I'm not saying we're better, but we are different.

One of our specialties, I think, is taking extremely unconventional shows (Passing Strange, The Wild Party, Assassins, Forbidden Planet, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) and making them fully accessible to audiences while still being true to the material and to the creators' intentions. We don't dumb down our shows or pander to our audiences; we just focus like a fucking laser on good, clear storytelling. Nothing is more important. Humans use storytelling to communicate all the most consequential information and ideas, and there's nothing an audience appreciates more than good, clear storytelling.

None of this is to say that our kind of musical theatre is the only kind. In fact, I'm saying exactly the opposite of that. I'm trying to argue instead that the more mainstream, conventional kind of musical theatre most people are used to is not the only kind of musical theatre either. People sometimes tell me they don't like musicals, but I know most of them really mean that they don't like Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musicals. And I agree with them. Rodgers and Hammerstein shows are about as relevant today as buggy whips and dial telephones. And Broadway hasn't been the center of the art form in decades. Far more people see musicals in theatres across the country than in New York. Far more. That's where the coolest work is being done and where many of the new shows being born. New Line has birthed quite a few world premieres and we have also brought back from the dead shows that died an unnatural death in New York, like High Fidelity and Cry-Baby.

My only real point with this blog post is that there is more than one path. Broadway is not musical theatre any more than Family Matters is television. From the beginning of New Line, some folks have tried to define and/or judge us based on old-school conventions that were already outdated when I was born. Musical theatre is a serious American art form, worthy of respect and deserving of the same thoughtfulness one would give to Shakespeare or Mamet or Albee. Several reviewers got angry emails from me in New Line's early days, chastising them for turning their brains off during our shows just because they're musicals. Maybe that was an understandable bias in the 1920s and 30s, but not today. Not anymore.

Just as television evolved into a much more serious art form with the advent of cable TV and the creation of shows like Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Carnivale, and Dexter, so too has musical theatre as an art form evolved beyond the simplistic, mid-century morality of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with shows like Passing Strange, High Fidelity, bare, Bat Boy, Next to Normal, Spelling Bee, and The Wild Party.

I'm a lucky motherfucker. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when my art form was the most interesting, most adventurous it had ever been before, when the rock musical was finding its voice, when it was finally okay for people in musicals to talk the way people really talk, fucks, shits, and all, and to talk about things that matter. All the things people hate about old-fashioned musicals were fading away just as I came into this world. The last big hit of the so-called "Golden Age" (i.e., the Rodgers and Hammerstein era) was Fiddler on the Roof, which opened the year I was born. Just as I'm on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, I'm also on the cusp between old-school musicals and contemporary musical theatre.

And it's a very cool vantage point.

Some theatre people think making theatre is just a job, and that it should deliver job security and a middle-class paycheck. And they get resentful when that doesn't happen. Which it usually doesn't. They call the theatre "show business." But I believe -- and I think many of the New Liners believe -- that making theatre is a calling, a privilege, a responsibility, and only lastly, a job. Being an artist is a difficult, misunderstood, and often thankless job. The pay is low and the work is hard. But we know that we have been favored by the gods, not short-changed. We are lucky beyond all reasonable expectations to get to do what we do. Even if we didn't make any money, we'd be lucky. We are the shamans, the keepers of the flame, the storytellers. Do you know how many people wish they could do what we do?

Long Live the Musical!


grace lee | October 31, 2012 at 11:06 PM

Thanks for the post. I dream to be a professional actress someday-So far I’ve only done school-related productions. And the post with inner-thoughts of the professionals in the field like yours helps me think farther. Thanks for sharing it.