You've Got Sondheim, But We've Got Charlie Sheen

About halfway through Bukowsical, a lawyer stops the show dead in its tracks. He says, "I represent the estate of Charles Bukowski and have been retained to halt this unauthorized production. There can be no fictional or non-fictional representations of Charles Bukowski and/or the events of his life, nor can there be any discussions or references to his novels, poems, short stories, songs, slogans, or screenplays based on or inspired by the events of his life."

It's a really weird meta-moment in the middle of an already weird meta-musical.

The conversation goes on. The narrator says to the lawyer, "But we're not representing his life so much as capturing the essence of his being." That sounds comically pretentious, but it's also true. That is what this show is doing. The lawyer responds, "There can be no fictional or non-fictional representations of the essence of the being of Charles Bukowski and/or the events of his life, nor can there be any discussions or references to his… all right, let’s cut to the chase. This performance must stop now or you will all face legal ramifications."

It's such an interesting moment on several levels. First of all, it brings up the issue of art made from other art, and the rights of artists to control their work. Should hip-hop artists be free to sample other artists' work in their own work? Should visual artists be able to use Disney images in their work, without the Disney legal department descending upon them? Should video artists be able to use other people's film and video clips to create new work, a question brought to the fore in recent years by YouTube? Where do the First Amendment and "intellectual property" law collide? In 2013 do we have to completely rethink ideas of copyright, intellectual property, and the "ownership" of ideas and art?

Also we realize, as we listen to this conversation between the lawyer and the narrator, that this show hasn't quoted any of Bukowski's work. The closest it comes is the song "Love is a Dog from Hell," which takes the phrase from one of Bukowski's titles. And presumably, the Bukowsical writers know you can't copyright a title. What's fun about all this is it's both fictional and real at the same time. This lawyer is just one of the actors and the audience knows that. But it's also true that Stockdale and Green don't have the rights to Bukowski's work.

Bukowsical works on two (or occasionally more) levels of reality. The actors at New Line are playing a troupe of actors in Los Angeles, who are playing the people in Bukowski's life. Without the show's original framing device of the backer's audition, this idea is more subtle during the first part of the show, but it becomes more explicit when the "performance" is interrupted by the lawyer. When this New York lawyer takes a swipe at people in Los Angeles, the "actors" respond with the song "That's Los Angeles," a charmingly clueless tribute to the city of angels, chock full of very funny back-handed compliments. The audience knows this song is scripted, that it's been rehearsed and staged, but it's also "spontaneous" within the world of Bukowsical.

If the audience didn't consciously register this double layer of reality before, they do now. And it will pay off at the end of the show, after the song "Twelve Steps of Love."

We New Liners have dealt with this kind of double-reality before. It's written into some shows, like Man of La Mancha and Reefer Madness, and it was part of our approach at New Line to some other shows, like The Robber Bridegroom and Evita. It's always hard for the actors to figure out how to play this, if they haven't dealt with it before, but they always eventually get comfortable with the idea. And we've found that as long as the actors are comfortable with it, so the audience will be too -- whether they recognize the double-reality consciously or not.

The show's writers help the audience with this double-reality by mentioning two other fictitious musicals this troupe is working on, and letting us hear songs from both of them -- "an all-African-American musical version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters set during the Watts Riots of 1965" and a show called Rootin' Tootin' Ramparts. We get just a taste of the black Three Sisters with a fragment of the gospel-flavored "Sistah Sistah Sistah," and then we're told that the next song, "That's Los Angeles," was cut from Rootin' Tootin' Ramparts (about which we find out nothing more), giving this troupe of players a little more backstory, a little more reality. But just for a second, before this freight train of a show barrels on, we wonder what on earth Rootin' Tootin' Ramparts might be about, and how on earth "That's Los Angeles" would fit in a show with a title like that.

But in the midst of all this craziness, this song also gets at something fundamental about Bukowski's work -- almost all of it is set in Los Angeles, where he lived most of his life. But it's not the Los Angles we see in movies. Bukowski's L.A. is dark and seedy and dangerous. So here's this anthem to Los Angeles, but everything in the lyric undercuts itself --
Maybe you've got concerts
At Alice Tully Hall,
And other high-class venues packed with
Snobs from wall to wall.
Well, we've got sitcom tapings,
And they're absolutely free!
And baby, that's Los Angeles to me.

Not only are they comparing Lincoln Center's classical music venue to sitcom tapings, but the big selling point here is not that they're good, but that they're free. It's a reminder that this is a city not of culture but of commerce, at least according to this song. It's a comically cynical (and arguably accurate) picture of Los Angeles that Bukowski would have appreciated, but it's delivered with such aggressive sincerity that it becomes even funnier.

Before the cast sings "That's Los Angeles," the lawyer says, "I’m a lawyer, I’m from New York, I’m a Jew. I know musical theatre. And there’s no way that this is ever going to make it on Broadway." The lawyer lives inside a false reality but he's getting at a real truth -- Bukowsical, even as clever and funny as it is, could never be produced on Broadway, where audiences aren't always eager to be challenged and almost never ready to be offended, both reasons why Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson couldn't survive in New York. The Bukowsical writers are acknowledging what everyone in the audience is thinking.

But it also brings up -- if only subliminally -- a more interesting point, particularly here in its production by New Line. No, Bukowsical could not survive the commercial theatre, but commercial theatre isn't the only game anymore. Since the early 1990s, when New Line was founded, there has been a growing nonprofit musical theatre movement across America, an alternative to the commercial musical theatre of New York and Broadway tours. Musicals no longer have to be designed for the (often non-English-speaking) tourists and families who go to Broadway shows.

Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen writes in her book Directors and the New Musical Drama, “After the pioneering efforts of theatres such as the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York, the idea of the serious nonprofit musical spread to theatres across America during the 1990s. While these shows met with varying levels of economic and critical success, the very existence of this alternative home for the art form began to redefine the musical, offering an alternative to both the traditional Broadway musical and the new West End shows. As the economics of the commercial theatre became increasingly forbidding, the nonprofit theatre became vital incubators for musical drama and nurtured a new generation of musical theatre writers.”

And Broadway is usually playing catch-up these days. The times, they are a-changing'.

Both Cry-Baby and High Fidelity died quick, humiliating deaths on Broadway at the hands of the chronically clueless, but New Line resuscitated them, produced them, demonstrated how outstanding both shows are (without rewriting them), got rave reviews and sold-out houses, and now other companies around the country are producing both shows. We hope the same thing will happen with Bukowsical. We don't need no stinkin' Broadway...

I know, easy for me to say...

When I was a kid, I guess I cared about Broadway. But now all I want is to work on amazing pieces of theatre with amazing artists and share it with amazing audiences. And that's what I do. The truth is I'm living exactly the life my four-year-old self always wanted. I'm making musicals. Although now that I think about it, my four-year-old self wouldn't be allowed to see New Line shows...

Ah, fuck him.

I realize as I work on this show that I have a lot in common with Charles Bukowski. Like Buk, I refuse to follow convention in my art and I don't care much about money. I make the kind of art I want to make, and people can like it or not. Like Buk, my art is often vulgar, often uncomfortable, often confrontational, but always suffused with truth. Because life itself is often vulgar, uncomfortable, and confrontational. We don't make art that allows you to escape from your road in life -- we make art that helps you understand and navigate your road.

Because that's what art is for. Bukowski understood that better than most. And in a weird way, so does Bukowsical.

Long Live the Musical!