Got the World Right By the Balls

So how do you stage a wild, even bizarre show like Bukowsical?

Good Question. I'm working on it...

Sometimes when I'm directing, I get lost in trying to find a "clever" way to stage something, or to avoid being "boring." But those are the wrong goals. The right goal is to figure out what this story and these writers are saying, then come up with the clearest possible way to tell that story. How can my physical staging make each moment as clear as it can be? If I'm working on good material, I don't have to add to it; I just have to reveal it.

I realized a while back that most New Line shows share a common trait -- they are sui generis, completely and fundamentally unlike anything else, original in the extreme. Just look at shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bat Boy, Love Kills, Assassins, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, Floyd Collins, Return to the Forbidden Planet, The Rocky Horror Show, Passing Strange, High Fidelity, A New Brain, The Robber Bridegroom, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Kiss of the Spider Woman... I could keep going...

So for every show, I have to start back at square one and figure out how this show works, what the rules are this time. The answers are never the same twice.

And of course, Bukowsical is also on that list. I've never encountered anything like it before. Its fundamental premise is so "wrong," so hilariously dissonant, that it feels like it could only have been born of copious amounts of incredi-weed. (I have no actual information on whether that's true.) Sure, there are other shows that are mash-ups of dissonant genres -- Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Catch Me If You Can, Urinetown, Forbidden Planet, and others -- but Bukowsical chose two forms that are even more dissonant, and surprisingly, also more revealing.

Bukowsical is a subversive, rule-busting musical about a subversive, rule-busting writer. It is "carnivalesque," which Wikipedia describes as a term used by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin to refer to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. Bakhtin traces the origins of the carnivalesque to the concept of carnival, itself related to the Feast of Fools, a medieval festival, in which the humbler cathedral officials burlesqued the sacred ceremonies, releasing "the natural lout beneath the cassock." With Bukowski as the Lord of Misrule, a title he would have loved.

As always, Content Dictates Form.

Ask somebody if they like musicals, and if they don't, ask them why. Almost everything they say they hate about musicals is generally no longer true. Many contemporary musicals reject the love story for the Hero Myth. Most new musicals reject the awkward Fourth Wall "naturalism" of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yes, characters still break into song, but there's no pretense of "reality" before they break into song, so it doesn't feel phony in the same way. After all, people break into song in music videos. It's not really the singing that bothers people; it's the "breaking" into song (think about that verb), the cracking of the "reality" we're asked to accept. I think it was largely the laughable Fourth Wall "lie" of mid-century musicals, coupled with their simplistic, faux romanticism, that has turned off so many people to the art form, at least since the 1960s.

Musicals used to be an incredibly popular, mainstream form, but for a big part of the later 20th century, the art form didn't keep up with the culture. But that's changing...

We sometimes joke that New Line produces musicals for people who hate musicals. The truth is we produce musicals for people who hate old-fashioned, phony musicals that traffic in shallow love, shallow morality, and superficial Happy Endings. I'm lookin' at you, Brigadoon. New Line shows are honest. Even at their most outrageous, they are about the real world as it really is, and they reject the lies of the midcentury musical. Almost none of our shows have a Fourth Wall, and those that do, violate it repeatedly.

Classic musical comedy and its latest descendant, the neo musical comedy, are fundamentally honest because they never pretend to actually represent reality. The actors often face front and sing directly to the audience. The actors can see the audience, even interact with them, in a way they never would have in the Rodgers and Hammerstein model. They sing in harmony and move in choreographic unison, without explanation; while in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the dance must be explained away as a party, a dream, a performance. In musical comedy, dance is part of the base language, not a device.

In neo musical comedies, there's always an ironic, self-aware, meta layer interacting with the story and the storytelling. For instance, in the finale of Cry-Baby, the meta layer of what the audience actually knows about America today comically contradicts the utopian America these characters in 1954 think they see coming, in the song "Nothing Bad's Ever Gonna Happen Again." The song is only funny because of the knowledge and information the audience brings to the performance. The audience completes the circuit.

Likewise, so much of the humor in Bukowsical comes from the raw, bleak content smashing up against a form once known for rose-colored escapism. By choosing the neo musical comedy as their form, Bukowsical writers Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green chose complexity and honesty, two things Bukowski cherished. Never does this show ask the audience to pretend this is something that it is not. It's a performance, right here, right now, in this theatre. Nor does it whitewash the horrors of growing up Bukowski, despite its absurdist tone. Bukowski himself seemed constitutionally incapable of bullshit, and though Stockdale and Green seemingly chose a form many people often associate with bullshit, the show's sly self-awareness reverses that polarity.

Which is kind of the whole point of the neo musical comedy. The audience's expectations about musicals -- and the subversion of that -- is part of the storytelling. But Bukowsical is so well-crafted, so carefully and intelligently wrought, that it works both as a straightforward musical comedy and a satirical meta-musical. The jokes are great; the music is really fun and interesting and surprising; the lyrics are clever, fearless, and technically impeccable. It's every bit as entertaining as Anything Goes, but with a rich layer of irony on top thick enough to choke Brecht.

But one thing bothered me when I first read the script. There was a framing device about this misguided, mediocre theatre company holding a backer's audition to raise money for their new show Bukowsical. Right away, the frame didn't feel right to me. It made the show seem more like sketch comedy than the smart, Brechtian theatre that I think it actually is. (The fake theatre company is called The Sacred Angel Fist Circle of Note Gang Theatre.) The framing device takes the audience off the hook by putting up a wall of "We Don't Really Mean It" between them and story -- so the audience doesn't have to grapple with any of what's onstage because it's just some silly musical.

I think my reaction was partly about the comparative dishonesty of that frame, in what is otherwise a weirdly honest show. Also, it seemed like the writers were giving themselves an "excuse" for writing this vulgar, fearless show, by putting its creation in the fictional hands of the clueless, nameless egotist, "The Founder," and his merry band of players. To me, that feels like a cop out. Why not just dive in? In 2013, in front of an audience who's seen Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Wild Partythere's no need for excuse or explanation. They can handle anything we throw at them. Luckily for me, the authors are very cool, and they're letting me cut the framing device.

So I've come to the conclusion that the way to approach this show is just to treat it like a rowdy, wacky, big-hearted George M. Cohan musical comedy, and let the dark, oppressive, vulgar, offensive content do its own work, supplying the "neo" that makes the show a neo musical comedy. The original production played more like sketch comedy, but New Line's production will be in what I call the Bat Boy style -- completely straight-faced, emotionally honest outrageousness. No winking at the audience.

That's what the neo musical comedy is -- serious comedy. After all, Bat Boy is about religious intolerance, Forbidden Planet is about the clash between morality and science, Cry-Baby is about class injustice, Urinetown and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson are about the shallowness and self-destructiveness of political movements, and Bukowsical is about the struggle between an artist's life and his work. All hilarious shows about very serious shit.

With Bukowsical, we give the audience storytelling that seems shallow but is actually really smart and insightful, and we give them a form that seems light and superficial, even as it tells a dark, complicated story. We depend on the audience to discover this dissonance and this irony, which is what makes it all so funny. Even more so than with most other shows we do, here the audience has to complete the equation. Great comedy requires two things -- surprise and truth -- and Bukowsical has lots of both. Despite the style, we are telling the audience the truth about the horrors of Bukowski's life. And every song is a surprise in its crazy dual personality, exploring Bukowski's alcoholism while he dances a waltz with a seductive bottle of booze, or putting four great American writers -- Tennessee Williams, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, and William S. Burroughs -- into the middle of a Vaudeville number about obscenity.

And wait till you hear "Elegy." You'll shit yourself.

In all these ways, Bukowsical is a companion piece to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which started off this season for us. BBAJ is angry and aggressive, while Bukowsical is warm and friendly, but they have a lot in common. I've been writing a lot lately about the New American Musical, but I'm not just writing about it. We're putting it onstage, show after show. We're letting our audience watch the evolution of this most American art form, right in front of their eyes, as it's happening. And to my delight, more and more companies around the country are following our lead, producing really challenging, original, new works of musical theatre. There is an audience hungry for that.

Just as we're seeing a massive realignment in American politics today, we're seeing the same thing in the American musical theatre. We're at an historical turning point, and it's pretty exciting to watch it happening all around us.

And Bukowsical is part of that.

We start blocking Sunday.

Long Live the Musical!