Wintergreen for President

In the wake of President Obama's decisive victory last night, my twin obsessions -- American politics and American musical theatre -- both beg so many questions. And so my last blog post now gets a companion.

It's been an amazing, crazy, infuriating, inspiring, complicated year. What have I learned about this election cycle -- and our collective selves -- from New Line's fall show, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in terms of the power and pitfalls of American populism, and in terms of America's changing demographics, maybe as stark in 1828 as they are now? What have I learned from Jesus Christ Superstar about resistance to change from the political power structure? What have I learned from Passing Strange about the role of race in this election? What have I learned from Of Thee I Sing (a show I wish we could do) about how easily distracted the electorate can be and how trivialized an election can be? I could keep going...

And also, has this election proved me right, that contemporary musical theatre now regularly gets at some of the hardest, darkest truths of our socio-political life, more than ever before in the art form's history?

Why, yes it has.

My entire life is built on the idea that storytelling is one of the most important thing humans do, that we learn from it, that we connect to each other through it, that we grow from it, that we are challenged by it in all the right ways. And now looking at one of the most consequential moments in our history, I have to ask -- am I right?

For a political junkie like me, election day is like Christmas morning, and thanks to cable news, I had a three-day Christmas Eve over the weekend. As a civics geek who happily admits to watching C-Span, and as someone who loves our country really deeply -- its philosophy, its promise, its people, the genius of its founding documents, the energy of its culture -- it doesn't get much better than this. We are so lucky to live in a nation founded by some of the greatest minds of all time, who created the most amazing, most beautiful system of government the earth has ever known (someday, New Line will tackle 1776). As Franklin Roosevelt once said, "Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country." I believe in that. Politics is not a terrible, nasty thing -- it is the way we decide how to live together, what we value, what we believe as a nation. I have no patience for the apathetic or the nihilists who declare that all politicians are bought and sold -- they're not -- and that the people are powerless -- we are not.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson reminds us of that. But it also cautions us to be careful that our heroes are men of substance and conviction, and not just charisma.

I'm fascinated by the election as a storyteller. This election cycle was the first time I made the connection between political campaigns and storytelling, the first time I realized how fundamental narrative is to human communication, the first time I realized that almost every piece of information of value is passed along through our storytelling, even when we don't consciously register that's what it is. It was during this election season that I heard a pundit say the politician's number one job is to "tell the story." It was a smack-in-the-forehead moment for me -- how did I not understand that before now?

As a professional storyteller myself, that really struck me. I instantly saw the truth in it. And a candidate has to tell multiple stories -- the story of America through the lens of their philosophy and ideology, the story of the last four years, the story of the next four years, and in this election, the story of a clash of cultures and how that will or should play out over time. Also, this year, there is the story of America's demographic evolution, and the story of class and justice, and lest we forget, the story of race in America.

And I realize that over this extended campaign, New Line's shows have been remarkably relevant and timely. In summer 2011, as the candidates began campaigning for the Republican nomination, New Line produced the brilliant, powerful pop opera bare, about the failure of institutions in our culture, perhaps never so relevant as it is right now. (Unfortunately, the current New York revival has eviscerated the show in pointless, stupid rewrites, cutting more than half that beautiful score.) bare shows us what a conservative America looks like, rigidly, dogmatically bound to an archaic religious tradition, rejecting community and collective action for an every-man-for-himself view of the world, cold, distant, uncaring, fact-phobic. If ever there was a cautionary tale for our culture, bare is it.

In fall 2011, we produced Passing Strange, another story about the failure of institutions, about conformity,  and this time, also about race in America. Written long before Barack Obama was a candidate for President, it is still remarkable in its insightful, tough look at how we all -- white and black and brown -- think about and "perform" race. In a world of birthers and conspiracy theorists and Obama derangement syndrome (all conservatives are not racists, but almost all racists are conservatives), Passing Strange is a powerful and sometimes uncomfortable exploration of how we deal with race. I learned so much from this show, and I found its political subtext really powerful...

This past spring we brought back to life the hilarious and insightful Cry-Baby, a very political story about class and justice. Sitting here in 2012, one might think the show was inspired by the Occupy/99% movement or by Romney's "47%" video, but the show was written several years ago, and current events have just caught up with its piquant social commentary. It's hard to avoid seeing the parallels between the unjust arrest and imprisonment of Cry-Baby and his gang in the show, and the senseless mass incarceration of the poor and men of color in today's America. In the show, the charge is arson; in today's world, it's usually drugs, but the result is the same. Our War on Drugs has really only accomplished one thing well -- creating a permanent underclass in America. And that's what Cry-Baby is about. The show's fiercely ironic finale, dreaming of a perfect America in the future, is so unsettling because we know none of those utopian visions will come to pass. At least not yet...

This past summer we produced the superficially non-political show, High Fidelity. But though its story is primarily an intimate one, it did carry with it a metaphorical message for America in 2012 -- good things come only from focusing on others, not on yourself. In the show, Rob has to grow up and realize that he will be happier if he works to make Laura happy. It is a subliminal rejection of "rugged individualism" and an embrace of "it takes a village" -- on a personal level, sure, but it has more macro implications too. When everyone's out for themselves, we get the Bush years; when we focus on each other, we get the Obama years.

And this fall, we produced by far the most political show we've done since the last Presidential election. Back in 2008 we produced Hair, running right up to the weekend before the election. We also did Evita since then, but though it has a lot of political content, that show is really a personal story with a political backdrop. But Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson which we just closed a couple weeks ago, is entirely about politics. And though it's set in the 19th century, it's also entirely about the here and now. I've never worked on a show that had so much to say, so intelligently and insightfully, about American politics today.

There is a lot of received wisdom about how musicals are supposed to work, much of which has been discarded, mocked, or both, in recent years. One of those beliefs is that musicals have to be centered on a love story. Since music is inherently emotional, the argument goes, the story must be primarily an emotional one. I agree with that, but I reject the idea that only love stories are emotional stories. The emotion of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson comes from the passion Jackson has for politics and for "his people."

Politics is, after all, intensely human, intensely emotional, as we've seen over the past year...

We say on the New Line website that we believe live theatre is one of the most powerful tools we have for social and political change, and we believe we have an obligation to use that tool to make the world a better place, to engage the people of our region in a discussion about the issues of our times. Acting guru Stella Adler once famously said, "Unless you give the audience something that makes them bigger – better – do not act." We agree. Making theatre is such a difficult, expensive, labor-intensive enterprise -- why would anyone bother unless the end product was something of real value in our lives?

I'll repeat what I've said before, that people do not go to the theatre (or movies, or watch TV) for escape; they go for connection. Storytelling helps us navigate the crazy, craggy terrain of day-to-day life, and it preserves and transmits our culture and our history. There are few things more important than that...

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you don't recognize this post's title, click here.