The hardest part of my job is closing a show. It kills me.
I pour my heart and soul into finding wonderful pieces to work on, dissecting and understanding the material and figuring out how to approach it, finding fearless, smart, talented actors to bring the story and my ideas to life, and convincing audiences to come share the experience with us. That last part turned out to be way easier than I expected with Next to Normal. It's been one of the biggest selling shows we've ever produced, and that surprised me a lot. Usually, the darker a show is, the less well it sells -- and Next to Normal is reeeeeally dark.
Despite what some local actors assume, we really don't pre-cast our shows, unless we announce it publicly. With Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, we pre-cast John Sparger in the lead because... well, because he's Sparger, and he's a kick-ass rock-and-roller. For our upcoming show, we pre-cast Zak Farmer as Charles Bukowski because sometimes an actor and a role fit so perfectly that I can't imagine anyone else doing it. In both cases, we announced the pre-casting in our audition notices. But we try not to pre-cast too often.
For Next to Normal, we didn't pre-cast anyone.
There were several women who work with us who really wanted the role of Diana, and I knew we'd get a lot of great women auditioning for both Diana and Natalie. So not only did I know we'd have a wide range of choices, I also knew my women friends who are actors would have killed me if we had pre-cast it. Kimi Short, who we ended up casting as Diana, has worked with us since 1998, but she wasn't a shoo-in for the role. Until she auditioned for it -- then there was no question -- Kimi had to play Diana.
I knew Kimi has a rich, warm, gorgeous voice, with a range that fits Diana like a glove. I knew that Kimi is a strong, emotional, expressive actor -- and really good at comedy. But she truly surpassed all my expectations. Her performance was nothing less than extraordinary (and the critics agreed), nuanced and surprising and honest and so deeply, fearlessly emotional. Kimi's Diana was very different from Alice Ripley's original portrayal. I loved Ripely in the role -- I loved the entire original production -- but I wanted to go in a different direction. Ripley's Diana was constantly on the edge of complete insanity, to the point that you almost thought Ripley herself would fall apart before the story was done. It was a freakishly precarious high-wire act and the sense of inevitable collapse into chaos was palpable. And that totally worked.
But Kimi went in such a different direction. Kimi's Diana is the lady next door. We know this Diana. We see this Diana at the store and never suspect her illness. Kimi made Diana "ordinary" in a way that intensified the connection to the audience and also lent a sense of everyday reality to the story that Ripley didn't really get at. Kimi's Diana was one of us, while Ripley was "other," a "sick person." Ripley was brilliant in the role, but her choices put something of a wall between her and the audience -- most of us have never met anyone as fucked up as Ripley's Diana. She was scary. And that kept us at arm's length. But in New Line's production, with Kimi's warmer, more subtle performance and a 210-seat house with a front row two feet from the action, we were in Diana and Dan's home with them. We were inside the story with them.
We felt Dan's struggle, because to some extent we struggled along with him to understand Diana and not get caught up in the maelstrom of her illness.
Maybe the greatest choice Mike Dowdy and I made as directors was putting Jeff Wright in the role of Dan, and bringing him back together with Kimi, after they played the two leads in High Fidelity (both in 2008 and 2012). They have such comfort with each other onstage; and in this show, they really got inside that amazingly complex relationship between Dan and Diana -- two people at odds with each other, but who have been married for almost twenty years, even though arguably they shouldn't be together. Kimi and Jeff really seemed like a married couple -- there was a genuine physical intimacy between them -- and that honesty went a long way in making Dan a stronger character and making their marriage more palpably real.
Jeff is one of those actors I work with whenever I can. He's incredibly easy to direct -- and when a director finds an actor like that, he never wants to let go of him. But more importantly, Jeff has an honesty and sincerity onstage that few actors can equal. He's utterly fearless, happy to leap into whatever weird ideas I may give him, and he accesses deep, dark emotions on stage so viscerally. We got a taste of that when he played Hinckley in Assassins and when he played Rob in High Fidelity. Here, he built the character of Dan throughout Act I, giving him such reality, and then he repeatedly tore our hearts out throughout Act II, as we watched Dan's world crumble around him. Dan is really a very selfish guy, but as he's done with other roles, Jeff gave him such humanity, such raw vulnerability, that we couldn't help but feel for him. Some nights, I wondered if Jeff and Kimi were going to get through "How Could I Ever Forget?" -- they got so "lost" in the grief and regret and shame and loss that they've buried for so long. It was positively gut-wrenching. And Dan's final moments with Gabe before the finale were almost unbearably emotional -- the only moment that choked me up every single night.
Every time they work with me, Jeff and Kimi give me the best gift an actor can give a director. They take the work seriously, they give everything they have, and they trust me even when they don't totally understand where I'm heading. And they're two of the most emotionally honest actors I've ever worked with.
When people told me how much they loved our show, I always reminded myself that we had a hell of a head start -- after all, we were working on a Pulitzer Prize winning drama. But few actors could navigate this dramatic tightrope like Jeff and Kimi did every night. As I often tell people, my analysis and my ideas have no value at all unless I have brilliant, fearless actors to bring those ideas to life.
Luckily for me, I do.
I directed Next to Normal with one of our regular New Line actors, Mike Dowdy, who's appeared in almost all our shows since he first joined us in 2009 -- playing everything from a stoner servant in Two Gentlemen of Verona, to the romantic lead in bare, to the crazed villain in Cry-Baby, to a quirky, shy record clerk in High Fidelity to a US President in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Dowdy was recently named New Line's new Associate Artistic Director. He had some directing experience already, but he had never directed with New Line. And he turned out to be an ideal collaborator -- so full of ideas, 90% of which were really smart and insightful, and always ready with a Plan B when my initial ideas didn't work out in blocking rehearsals. He's got an amazing sense of theatre and storytelling, and he's a hell of a problem-solver. Best of all, it never bothered him if I rejected an idea because it didn't totally mesh with where I was heading. Part of why we worked so well together is that he and I really believe in a lot of the same things about storytelling and theatre, and we like the same things -- dark humor, complexity, irony, aggressiveness. I could not have asked for a better, smarter, more insightful partner.
The rest of our cast was also really exceptional. Ryan Foziey (Gabe) started working with us just a year ago, playing the title character in Cry-Baby, but he's so instinctively in tune with our ballsy, über-intense New Line style. He had a very difficult role in this show -- Gabe is as much device as character, but Ryan both made Gabe real and also found a subtly different style of movement and acting that placed Gabe "outside" the other characters. Our approach to the show was pretty different from the original, so our Gabe had about twice as much stage time as Gabe did on Broadway, and while the original production often put Gabe up on the second and third levels of their massive set, completely disconnected from the audience and the other actors, we kept Gabe inside the action, often right up in other actors' faces. His place in our production was another real acting tightrope but he nailed it. He literally "haunted" the entire evening, and it was riveting. He figured out how to sort of "float" around the stage and he got really used to walking backwards, so he could "fade" out of scenes...
Zak Farmer is New Line's resident character actor. He's been in all but two New Line shows since summer 2007. He's going to be playing the lead in our next show, Bukowsical. And he could not have been more perfect for the dual roles of the two doctors in Next to Normal. There are several men who work with us who could have played those two characters, but really, only Zak could have pulled off the "Doctor Rock" scene like he did -- hilarious, crazy, and more than a tad disturbing. But he also gave both doctors full, rich characterizations. The story doesn't work as well if the doctors aren't fully real, and Zak gave them that. For the most part, Zak usually plays our wacko roles -- Barry in High Fidelity, Charles Guiteau in Assassins, Dr. Prospero in Return to the Forbidden Planet -- but he's also played more serious, more minimalist characters like Sheriff Karnopp in Love Kills. And it's that mix of wacky fearlessness and serious acting chops that made Zak so ideal for this role.
And then there were our newcomers. Mary Beth Black was one of the first people to audition for us, and after she walked out, I told Dowdy and our casting directors that unless someone else walks in and blows my fucking mind, Mary Beth was my Natalie. She's got a killer voice, she's a really strong, subtle, natural actor, and she just seemed right for Natalie. I didn't know till later that she's only a junior in high school, but that's part of what gives her Natalie such reality -- she knows where Natalie's coming from, in a way that older actors wouldn't. Plus, she's a dream to work with.
Joe McAnulty also just walked in off the street. When he came in, I was struck by how much he looked like my idea of Henry, and then he sang, and he has this clear baritone voice that's just perfect for this pop-rock musical style. Not being a stoner himself, Dowdy and I schooled Joe on smoking a bong, what it feels like to be stoned, etc. Not that we have actual experience with that, of course. We realized as we worked that Henry is the stoner Zen master, Natalie's wise wizard, her spirit guide. And once we talked about that, Joe fully embraced that side of Henry, and it led to a really wonderful performance that fit Mary Beth's Natalie so beautifully. The two of them charted the progress and obstacles of their relationship so carefully over the course of the story -- rather than just asking the audience to assume the connection between Natalie and Henry, Mary Beth and Joe took us on that journey, step by step, and their relationship seemed much realer to me than in the original. And that paid off in spades in the second-to-last scene, at the school dance, when their story arc is resolved.
If I'm honest, when both Mary Beth and Joe walked into the audition I instantly knew in my gut we were going to cast them. My gut doesn't always venture an opinion, but when it does, it's never wrong, Like, never.
I've written here about how amazing the writing is, how rich the characters and themes and language are, but none of that matters without amazing actors. I think I've done some of the best work I've ever done as a director -- with considerable help from Dowdy and from Kitt and Yorkey's brilliant material -- but again, it doesn't matter how interesting or original my staging is, or how insightful my approach is, without amazing actors. If the audience doesn't engage in the story and the emotions, if they aren't invested in the outcome, no amount of clever staging or brilliant wordplay matters.
It's all about the actors. Always.
And we hit the jackpot this time. Judy Newmark wrote in her Post-Dispatch review , "If you go to New Line Theatre with any regularity, you already know one of its signal pleasures: a repertory company.
There are relatively few around. But apart from building valuable, constructive relationships among actors, directors, designers and other artists who regularly work together, a repertory company also helps an audience feel at home. Recognizing actors from show to show, you feel like you’re 'in the know' -- and at the same time you enjoy watching them try new things." Now, we don't actually have a repertory company (how I wish we could afford that!), but we have something close -- a group of 10-15 actors who appear in most of our shows. Some of our actors, like Zak and Dowdy, appear in almost every show. Others appear in one or two shows each season. A few rejoin us only once every couple seasons. But equally important, we work very hard to make sure we bring in new people. Whenever possible, we try to make every cast half New Liners and half new folks. And the new folks this time totally earned their place in the New Line family. I hope they both come back to work us again.
The run of a show always takes a lot out of me. It usually takes me a couple weeks to recover, both physically and emotionally. I will miss this show, this cast, this production very much. We run our shows for twelve performances, and Next to Normal got twelve full houses and twelve standing ovations. And it has put some nice padding in our bank account.
Which is good, because Lord only knows how Bukowsical will sell...
There's nothing better in the world than doing really great work with really great people for wildly enthusiastic audiences and rave reviews. The people of St. Louis have given me the greatest gift of my life -- twenty-two years of continued support for New Line Theatre and the work we do. Like they say, without an audience, it's just a rehearsal. I owe St. Louis so much.
One last thought... I know there are companies in town that program their seasons in terms of what they think will sell well, in terms of what they think the audience "wants." But you know what audiences really want? Great storytelling. Audiences don't only like what they already know. They like what's good. They want an adventure. They want connection. Look at the incredible success we've had lately, with Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and now Next to Normal. Our audiences didn't know they "wanted" these shows until they saw them. It's my job as an artistic director to find exciting, interesting, original pieces of theatre that will delight and thrill and connect with our audience. I work for them -- literally, since New Line is a nonprofit -- and I abdicate my responsibility if I give audiences only what they ask for.
A line from 1776 always comes back to me -- "A representative owes the people not only his industry, but also his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion." That applies to my job too. Our audience "hires" me (by buying tickets and making contributions) to find pieces of theatre that will surprise and thrill them. And I can't imagine a better job than that.
I get two weeks off now, to decompress and to prepare for Bukowsical rehearsals. We've got another ridiculously strong cast, and one of the craziest, smartest, wildest shows I've ever found, yet another show that will confirm once again New Line's status as "the bad boy of musical theatre." Another adventure begins.
But first I sleep...
Long Live the Musical!