Next to Normal

How did you get there from here, Mr. Shepard? 
What did you have to go through? 

I was watching the new PBS documentary, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy (which is really great!), and I suddenly saw so clearly the direct line through the entire history of musical theatre leading straight to Next to Normal.

At the turn of the last century, the legendary George M. Cohan invented the American musical comedy. He was the guy who put the muscle and the rowdiness into the American theatre. He put onstage for the first time American slang, American pop music, the American immigrant experience, the wild, aggressive, chaotic vibe that is the American experiment. Almost everything we do in musical theatre today is built on the shoulders of Cohan.

In the early 1940s, two veteran musical theatre writers joined forces and created the Rodgers and Hammerstein Revolution, which in retrospect was as much a detour as an evolution. With the twenty-twenty hindsight of the twenty-first century, we can see now that the R&H model was really an outlier in the evolution of the art form. R&H tried to impose the rules and devices of the 1930s "well-made play" and the "social problem play" onto the musical theatre and it was an uncomfortable marriage, unable to meld naturalism and the fourth wall with the inherent Brechtian artificiality of musicals. And this artistic Frankenstein's monster unintentionally stopped the art form from further evolving during the 1950s. Yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein's first few shows did move us forward, but their later shows did not, and the weird restrictions of the model they created tied the hands of musical theatre artists for a while.

In the 1960s and 70s, Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim rejected the R&H model and started (also probably unintentionally) the Prince-Sondheim Revolution, creating (well, more accurately, perfecting) the Concept Musical, shows in which a central metaphor or theme takes precedence over linear narrative. They changed everything again, but this time, they created such a free and open new form, that it opened countless new artistic doors for writers and directors.

We're opening doors,
Saying, "Here we are!"

To use a fairly tortured metaphor, Rodgers and Hammerstein were like alcohol -- they shut down the possibilities like alcohol shuts down the mind. Prince and Sondheim were like marijuana -- they opened up possibilities like pot opens up the mind. Rodgers and Hammerstein were trapped in midcentury conformity and morality, but our country was changing in massive, fundamental ways. Prince and Sondheim's work was born out of the rebellious, dangerous, open 1960s.

Parallel to the Prince-Sondheim revolution was the birth of the rock musical. Expresso Bongo in London was the first real rock musical, but Hair was the first rock musical on Broadway and it was the show everyone else tried to imitate for years afterward, with shows like Godspell, Grease, The Me Nobody Knows, and others. The rock musical struggled for a while to claim its place in the art form's evolution, but by the mid-1990s, the rock musical was on track to becoming the dominant musical theatre form, which has now happened fully.

Meanwhile, back in the 1980s, the British Invasion hit Broadway and shaped musical theatre tastes for a while with its new "mega-musical," in which the physical production and orchestrations became more important than the music and lyrics, rather than serving them. Most of the time, there was no book. This was also a detour in the art form's evolution, because these shows are built on very old European forms, even though they use the musical vocabulary of rock and/or pop. When rock musicals took their rightful place at the front of the art form in the mid-1990s, the effects of the British Invasion lessened considerably. Today, though the most popular mega-musicals are still with us, that's no longer the dominant form.

During the early and mid-1990s, the American musical theatre began a new era, a new Golden Age, in which two new forms -- well, sort of new -- now drive the evolution of the art form: the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical. Collectively, I call these two forms the New American Musical. The neo musical comedy takes the form, structure, and devices of the Cohan musical comedy, but layers on them the ironic, self-referential humor of today's culture, along with much darker, much more substantial narrative content. Just look at A New Brain, Assassins, Spelling Bee, Bat Boy, Urinetown, The Wild Party, Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Bukowsical, or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

The neo rock musical melds together some of the more serious narrative devices and forms of the R&H model, with the (inherently Brechtian) modern rock concert, to create a new hybrid that speaks to our current cultural zeitgeist in a powerful way. Think of Rent, Hedwig ad the Angry Inch, The Capeman, Spring Awakening, Love Kills, Passing Strange, American Idiot, bare, High Fidelity...

And Next to Normal.

I've written a lot in the last couple years about what an amazing time this is for our art form. The American musical theatre has never been more vigorous, more alive, or more forward-looking. We New Liners are very lucky that we get to work on so many of these truly transformational pieces, that we get to watch the art form evolve, in real time and from a front row seat.

We started working on Next to Normal last week and as I listen to our amazing cast singing these remarkable songs in rehearsal, I am repeatedly reminded how special and how unique this show is -- and how much the show represents the forward motion of our art form.

I was asked to be a guest yesterday at the Musical Theatre Educators Alliance conference, and it was so cool being in a room with a whole bunch of educators who agree with me about the present and the future of our art form. Sometimes I feel like a lone prophet, trying to convince the world that musicals aren't stupid and silly, that they are powerful, relevant, and vital to the health of our society. Sometimes I feel like I'm arguing climate change -- even though tons of evidence is on my side, there is often such firm conviction that I'm wrong.

Maybe the very existence of New Line over the last twenty-one years is just my elaborate way of proving my own point. We'll certainly be proving it with Next to Normal. More so than with anyone else I know, my earliest memories from childhood all pointed directly toward where I'm going today. I was born the same year most people cite as the end of the Rodgers & Hammerstein era, the same year Sondheim's first great experiment Anyone Can Whistle opened (and closed), launching the Prince-Sondheim Revolution. And I just happened to start a theatre company right when the New Golden Age was beginning. It's not just that the history of musical theatre draws a straight line to this moment; so does my life. Mother said, straight ahead, not to delay or be misled.

I'm so full of gratitude and joy and responsibility. I already can tell that working on Next to Normal is going to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

The adventure begins.

Long Live the Musical!