I Prefer Perversity

The response we've gotten to Bukowsical has been amazing. We routinely get rave reviews for our work, but this show is so out of the mainstream, so subversive, so aggressive, that I thought we might freak out some of the reviewers. Instead they rose to the challenge, just as we had, and they wrote some really insightful reviews...

I think my favorite quote came from Steve Allen at Stage Door St. Louis, who wrote in his review, “Scott Miller and his New Line Theatre never back down. Has a musical been a quick flop on or off Broadway? He’ll make it a hit and suddenly regional theatres are salivating to produce it. Is a musical considered too 'out of the mainstream?' No problem, let’s give our audiences a choice and see what happens. Is this one too rude, crude and obnoxious? Let’s do it! And now, combining all three of the above theatrical no-no’s, New Line presents Bukowsical, the musical.”

In that quote, Allen gets at what's most important to me about New Line -- to find and better understand shows that others have failed to fully understand. Quite a few of the shows we produce have opened on or off Broadway but failed quickly and sometimes spectacularly. But it's never the show's fault. High Fidelity, bare, Cry-Baby, and other shows we've produced were badly served by their New York production staffs, and needed only respect and serious consideration to be truly wonderful. And as Allen mentions, once we produce these shows and prove their worth, other companies around the country begin contacting us to find out how to get production rights. Which I love.

Bukowsical is in a different category, because our version of the script is relatively different from the original, since the writers allowed me to remove the show's original framing device, and that changed the show in a fundamental way. But again, I think we came at this outrageous comedy more seriously than it had been approached in its earlier incarnations -- we take our comedy very seriously -- and the result is that we revealed the artistry and craft and insight that hadn't been fully revealed before. And it's still really funny, maybe even funnier. Even the show's authors told us that they had learned a lot about their show from seeing our production.

What better compliment could anyone pay us...?

Lynn Venhaus of the, Belleville News-Democrat, wrote in her review, "Let's hear it for the risk takers, for those who embrace originality, for entertainers who want to give audiences something different. Want to raise your eyebrows, laugh out loud and marvel at the chutzpah of creative minds? Fit the bold, brazen -- and bewitching -- Bukowsical into your schedule at New Line Theater during the next two weekends. . . it's unlike anything you have ever seen."

Judy Newmark also wrote something really insightful at the top of her review -- "Did Charles Bukowski — the alcoholic, self-destructive, charismatic artist of American lowlife, a subject he swam through in his brackish flood of novels, stories, columns and poems — ever see a musical? It’s hard to imagine what would have inspired him to take in a Broadway show. Songs such as 'Some Enchanted Evening' and 'I Could Have Danced All Night,' after all, express a somewhat different worldview from 'Love Is a Dog from Hell' (the title of one of his many volumes of poetry). But musical theater has changed a lot since Bukowski (1920-1994) came on the scene. Now 'Love Is a Dog from Hell' is actually the title of a song — and its author is the subject of the smoky, clever, amazingly foul-mouthed show at New Line Theatre."

Again, Judy gets at something important and fundamental. Our art form is changing. Notwithstanding the many inexplicable remountings of musicals from 60-70 years ago, the American musical theatre has changed dramatically in the last two decades, in response to our changing world and culture. And it's still evolving, faster than at any other time in its history.

To that same point, Steve Callahan wrote in his Bukowsical review for KDHX, "For twenty-two years Scott Miller and his New Line company have been zapping the St. Louis musical theatre scene with bolts of energy. Off-beat, eccentric, sometimes dark, often hilarious, occasionally outrageous and always fresh, New Line productions are for folks who have accepted the fact that Rogers and Hammerstein are actually dead."

Since our founding in 1991, our company has been at the vanguard of nonprofit musical theatre across the country, a movement begun during the early 1990s, just as the idea of more purely artistic musical theatre was starting to take hold. 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.”

In New York, a show is a "success" only if lots of tourists pay a shit-ton of money to see it, over a really long period of time. At New Line, a show is a success if it's good and it connects to our audiences in a meaningful way.

Richard Green from TalkinBroadway, wrote a very smart and funny review, built on the fact that there were tornado warnings going off during our opening night performance of Bukowsical -- something Richard found to be a perfect metaphor...
Maybe we would have gone to the basement, as the sirens wailed, if the show had been The Sound of Music: which teaches us that good can overcome evil (even if it means crossing the Alps on foot with a bunch of spoiled little brats). Or maybe we would have gone to the basement if it were My Fair Lady: which teaches us that it's better to enter into a sham marriage with an abusive, closeted gay guy than go back to a life in the gutter. Because we want to believe these things—or, at least, we want to believe these things will lead to something that will be somehow just slightly more tolerable. Those are shows you bring an umbrella to—in hopes of a brighter tomorrow. And yet I didn't see a single bumbershoot on this very stormy Friday night. So, there we sat, as the steady mechanical howl outside turned to a strangely panicked hoot-hoot-hoot, which I don't remember ever hearing before in 45 years of living in Tornado Alley. And I think we sat there because we want to believe it will all lead to something worse. Something that validates what we have actually witnessed in our own lives: that the system is rigged in favor of corruption. That God has sub-contracted out the management of this world to the worst possible slave-state plantation foreman in the Universe. And that it all really needs to be set to music.

Not only was his review really funny, but he brilliantly captured what Bukowsical is all about. He ended his review with, "Everyone on stage, and in the band, is a heavy-hitter. And that feeling in the air, of a World Series just-won, is a tribute to all their precision and effort and talent, and even hopeful endurance, in spite of the storms, throughout." That's called a rave.

Chris Gibson wrote in his review for BroadwayWorld...
Scatological, unpredictable, and oddly whimsical at times, Bukowsical is not easily defined or categorized, and that's actually part of its appeal to me. Spencer Green (book, lyrics) and Gary Stockdale (book,lyrics and music) have concocted an interesting musical stew, some of which details the life and times of writer Charles Bukowski, and some of which seems to be skewering the entire idea altogether. For instance, the man himself doesn't bring to mind anything remotely resembling a warm and fuzzy character, and yet the music for this piece is incredibly sunny and upbeat. This makes for a fascinating juxtaposition between the lyrical content and the music that accompanies it. In fact, the words are often graphic and vulgar, but, at times, they're also surprisingly erudite and witty. These contradictions alone act to sum up Bukowski's complicated existence and ultimate status as a wordsmith. New Line Theatre's production captures this drunken genius in all his splendor. You may be shocked by what you see or hear, but I guarantee you won't forget it. This is cutting edge theatre at its finest.

Gibson got at the heart of why we wanted to do this show -- it's smart and funny, but beyond that, it questions (quite wittily) all the conventions and devices of American musical comedy. And that's a conversation we're all having about our art form. As we write and produce these neo musical comedies, we have to think about what we take from the old forms and what we discard, what about American musical comedy is still relevant and still uniquely American, and what about the form no longer speaks to audiences in 2013. The most fun part about the conversation is watching as so many different artists come to different conclusions about all that, as the form grows and evolves into something much more sophisticated without losing the joy and muscle and anarchy of old-school musical comedy.

Kevin Brackett at ReviewSTL has just started reviewing New Line shows recently (his site focuses more on film), and he's not a theatre guy at all, but that's part of what makes his reviews of our shows so great -- he's not constrained by preconceptions about musical theatre. He comes to our work fresh and open to whatever we put in front of him. He wrote in his review, "Aside from its brutally honest and uncensored mentality, what makes the show so great is how seriously it is taken while being outrageous and laugh out loud funny. What I mean is that all the elements of a great American musical are there. The book and lyrics, written by Spencer Green and Gary Stockdale, are clever and quirky – always keeping the audience anticipating the next quotable line while perfectly carrying the story along. The music by Stockdale, wonderfully performed by the New Line band, is as catchy and memorable as any Broadway show."

He gets it. This is serious comedy -- which I think is a lot funnier than silly comedy. He gets that this show uses the vocabulary of the "great American musical" but for different ends than Cole Porter and Jerry Herman. Maybe it's partly because he doesn't have much of a theatre background that he can see so clearly what we're up to, and appreciate it all for what it is. He ends his review with, "It should go without saying that with a tagline like 'Sex. Drugs. Booze. Art.,' Bukowsical is not for everyone. But if you are a fan of shows like The Book of Mormon, or Avenue Q, there shouldn’t be anything you can’t handle. New Line Theatre does what it does best, putting on a raw and uncensored show that never pulls any of its punches. With a fantastic cast, non-stop laughs, and many memorable songs, 'you can be Bukowsical too.' And you should."

In fact, three of our reviews compared Bukowsical favorably to The Book of Mormon (though I think Bukowsical is smarter and funnier and more subversive), and that's gotta sell some tickets!

Byron Kerman wrote in his review for St. Louis Magazine, “It's the perfect piece of theater for a sophisticated urban crowd looking for pure ribaldry on a Saturday night. . . This is the sort of goofy, lead-with-your-pelvis, sharp late-night comedy that’s perfect for a city with a thriving, risk-taking alt-theatre scene, like Chicago or New York. We’d like more of this brand, please.”

Andrea Torrence wrote for St. Louis Theatre Snob, “This musical not only sheds considerable light on what went into making Charles Bukowski the artist he was, it also satirizes the conventions of musical theatre. It defies tradition by packaging foul lyrics about slimy behavior in these irresistibly tuneful, upbeat little songs. Under Miller's clear-sighted direction, the entire cast passionately embrace all kick-lines, key changes, and every instance of 'jazz hands.' Seeing these supposedly contradictory elements combined with such enthusiasm is what makes it so funny. The profanity may offend your sensibilities, but with everything else this show has to offer, I bet you'll get over it after about 4 minutes.”

Again, she understands that this show has an agenda beyond laughs. It's exploring what a musical comedy can -- should? -- be in this new millennium, to serve today's audiences living in these complicated, crazy times.

Truthfully, as a director, I don't really care what the reviewers think. The audience is the only true measure of a show's success. But as a producer, I know that the kind of reviews we get really do help sell tickets, particularly when we're producing shows like Bukowsical.

When New Line started out, there weren't many among the local reviewers who understood and wrote intelligently about our work. One notable exception was Mike Isaacson, who immediately got what we were up to, and who wrote amazingly intelligent, insightful reviews of our shows. (Today, Mike is a veteran Broadway producer and he recently took the helm at The Muny. But we miss him as a theatre reviewer.) But the theatre landscape in St. Louis has changed drastically over New Line's twenty-two seasons, and now it's pretty rare that we get a clueless review. Today, St. Louis reviewers don't turn off their brains when they go to a musical (as many of them once did) because we've shown them how smart and deep and relevant musical theatre is today.

And that may be what I'm most proud of.

Sure, I'm proud that New Line is still thriving after twenty-two seasons, but I get only some of the credit for that. Much of the credit goes to our incredible, adventurous audiences who embrace our work, and the rest of the credit goes to the amazing artists who do such extraordinary work with us, show after show. I am responsible for setting us on the right path, but they do all the work to get us there. I owe all of them so much.

I've been thrilled by the reception to this show. I can't imagine a better place to make the kind of theatre I want to make.

Thank you St. Louis.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. I have to share these two tweets about our show... One person, who was at our show with a couple celebrating their anniversary, tweeted, "What a show. Rude, Crude and Educational. Bukowsical is amazing. Thanks New Line Theatre and Happy Anniversary @LJcreach" And then the couple tweeted, "Bukowsical from New Line Theatre was quite possibly the best musical that I have ever seen. Love is a Dog from Hell. Happy Anniversary to us!" How awesome is that.