From the very beginning, twenty-two years ago, New Line has been about more than just live stage performances. Our mission statement says New Line was founded to involve the people of the St. Louis region in the creation and exploration of provocative, politically and socially relevant works of musical theatre.
To involve people.
The "exploration" part of that includes our newsletter (in the early days), the St. Louis Theatre Discussion Group we created back in 1999, our full service website (online since 1997!), my analysis essays about individual shows, the New Line blogs, our very active Facebook page, our YouTube channel, the New Line Bookstore, etc. It is sometimes hard for funders and others to understand, but New Line works to promote our own shows, and also to promote our local musical theatre community, and the St. Louis theatre community at large, and to promote the art form itself, especially by calling attention to all the amazing new writers and new work we see every day.
We never stop working to demonstrate that ours is a vigorous and thriving art form at the peak of its powers. Like The Group Theatre and The Living Theatre, but unlike most other theatre companies today, New Line has a fully developed philosophy, an artistic and intellectual framework that surrounds and informs all the work we do.
One of the most important parts of New Line's work is bringing attention to really wonderful shows that are lesser known (and therefore less produced) or that were treated badly in New York (and therefore less produced), so that those shows can have further life in regional theatres and colleges. It's one of the greatest joys in my life that we've accomplished that with a number of shows, most of which probably would not have had further life without New Line.
Here are some shows we've produced that we think other companies and/or schools should really consider. If you run a company or theatre department, see what you think. If you know someone who does, pass this along to them. We New Liners all loved working on these shows so much, and we so want to share these experiences...
High Fidelity is an outstanding example of our art form today. This is a smart, funny, touching, insightful, and wholly original musical, that makes up entirely new rules for itself, rules which come directly from the content of the story. Following the Sondheim Rule, content dictates form here. Tom Kitt and Amanda Green use songs in this show like no other theatre score does. There's so much more here than people first thought. When it's treated with respect, like the bitter-sweet, coming-of-age story that it is, rather than the wacky musical comedy love story its clueless Broadway director thought it was, it can be powerful theatre that connects powerfully with its audience. We were the first company to produce the show after its aborted Broadway run, and since we produced it, a bunch of other companies around the country have now picked it up. We literally brought this wonderful show back from the dead. Truly one of the greatest experiences I've ever had in the theatre. I love this show so much. And just look at the reviews we got...!
Cry-Baby was such a wonderful surprise for us. After its quick death on Broadway, I assumed it was a mess and we'd never produce it. Both assumptions turned out to be stupid. What we discovered is that Cry-Baby is a brilliant and big-hearted social satire, with a brilliant and laugh-out-loud hilarious score, a show that captures the twisted world of John Waters even better than Hairspray did. Its Broadway production team thought it was nothing more than a vulgar sex joke; but we knew that John Waters' world is subversive and confrontational, but also ultimately moral and deeply human. Again, no one would touch this show after its embarrassing run on Broadway, but New Line proved its worth. The authors even created new orchestrations for us, for a six-piece rock band, which is what they had wanted all along. And now other companies are producing the show. Again, we brought this beautiful, funny musical back from the dead and we could not be more proud of that. It's a perfect example of the neo musical comedy, a show using the devices and conventions of old-school musical comedy but retooled and updated for our ironic, self-aware, complicated, 21st-century culture. This might not be a show a high school could get away with (okay, maybe a really progressive one), but colleges and regional theatres should really consider it. It's wildly entertaining and endlessly funny, but also substantial and insightful. We had so much fun working on this show. And once again, the reviews were overwhelming...
Return to the Forbidden Planet is maybe the strangest and one of the most wonderful shows New Line has produced, a crazy mashup of 1950s science fiction, actual rock and roll classics, real Shakespearean dialogue (from a dozen of his plays), and also fake Shakespearean dialogue ("fakespeare"), all based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and also on the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, which is based on The Tempest. It was originally produced more as a rock concert, but we staged it fully, like any other musical, and it works beautifully that way. It's hilarious, fast-paced, high-energy, wacky, and every once in a while, emotionally really powerful. For high school drama departments, this would be an awesome introduction to The Bard, and for colleges and regional theatres, you will not find a more unexpectedly delightful show anywhere -- to our great surprise, tickets sold like crazy and we got tons of repeat customers. Audiences and reviewers were thrilled by it...
bare is the best crafted pop opera I've yet encountered, Yes, in my opinion, better crafted than Miss Saigon, Les Miz, and waaaay better than Phantom. The artistry and skill behind this work are really impressive, and yet it speaks so powerfully in the voice of today's youth in this very adult world. It's the very personal story of five high school students and their various demons, but it's also the story of the collapse of our institutions in America, in this case, the church, the educational system, and the family. This is a story about how our society is failing our young people. It's smart, it's powerful, it's sexy (too sexy for high schools and a lot of colleges, I think), and it's also really darkly beautiful. It didn't work in New York because bare is a show that works only if it's completely authentic. Any bullshit in the acting, direction, or design sinks it. Don't even get me started on the abominable revival off Broadway recently. This is not a show that wants "professional polish." It wants balls. And make no mistake, though the central characters are teenagers, this is an adult show with very adult content. It works precisely because every adult in that audience was one of these five kids in high school, and we all know exactly what they're going through. This is serious, thought-provoking theatre. When we did this show, people traveled to see us from across the continent. It's just that good. And the press loved us as much as our audiences did. They could see that this was something different and important and honest.
Love Kills was one of those shows I felt a moral obligation to produce. It's such a strong, powerful piece of writing, with so much to say about our culture. It's so challenging for an audience, and I knew that this show would never be produced widely, so it was up to us. As we often say, "If not us, then who?" And what a ride it was. The songs are raw and visceral and so nakedly emotional, almost uncomfortably so. The lyrics are so utterly organic to the characters, and just suffused with subtext. And the script is a master class in minimalism. Like the greatest American dramatists, Kyle Jarrow has written a script in which almost everything important is under the surface, in which what isn't said is often even more important than what is said. I've never worked on a better musical drama in my life. It's a tough piece because it does not judge these young spree killers, and it takes us more up close and personal than we might prefer. After most of our performances, many in our audience just sat there. They were literally stunned by it. It's one of our shows I'm most proud of. And the reviews were almost all raves. I really hope this ballsy show can have further life. It deserves that.
Bat Boy is perfect. It's just that simple. It's the very definition of a neo musical comedy. It's an intelligent, outrageous, big-hearted, darkly satiric, roller coaster ride. I'll always remember one line from Judy Newmark's review -- “So weird. So smart. So shocking. So entertaining.” This show is every single thing I want from a piece of theatre, a wildly entertaining, fast-paced story, with an incredible, endlessly interesting pop/rock score, and the most unpredictable plot I've ever found in a musical. You never know where this crazy ride will suddenly turn left and take us down an entirely new road. And both times we've produced it, we got nothing but rave reviews and sold-out houses. I really don't understand why more companies don't produce it -- it's one of those rare shows that is an artistic triumph and also a sure commercial hit. The only thing that hampered its original off Broadway run was the drop in New York tourism after the 9/11 attacks, which forced a lot of good shows to close. If I have to pick just one show that's my favorite, it's either Bat Boy or High Fidelity, depending on when you ask...
Two Gentlemen of Verona is a rowdy, wild, awesome musical comedy that will always have a very special place in my heart. It's a free-wheeling, sexy, rock musical adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy. Originally composer Galt MacDermot (Hair) was supposed to just set a couple songs in the play to music, but by the time he was done, it was a full-blown musical. And goddamn, is it fun! Fast-paced, funny, outrageous, sexy, silly, aggressive, with a little socio-political commentary along the way, all set to a Latin rock beat. Again, this would be a wonderful learning experience for students, since much of Shakespeare's dialogue is still there. The original play is one of Shakespeare's earliest and messiest, but MacDermot and playwright John Guare did some plot repair work as they musicalized it, and it really works. Again, tickets sold like crazy for us, and both audiences and reviewers fell in love with it.
I Love My Wife is probably too adult for most colleges and most regional theatres, but it's so cool. It's a rapid-fire musical comedy about two married couples who've been friends for years, and who decide in the midst of the tumultuous 1970s that they should try having a sexual foursome. Surprisingly, considering the story, it's ultimately a very innocent show, but the climax of the show (you'll pardon the pun) does put all four of them in bed together trying various sexual positions. If you can get past the content, it's an incredibly clever, sophisticated piece of theatre, with some of the most acrobatic, most literate lyrics you'll ever hear (by the late, great Michael Stewart), equal in every way to Sondheim and Finn. And Cy Coleman's music is like no other score I've ever worked on. I guess I'd call it "club jazz." With two pianos and a small combo. I think it's Coleman's best score, and certainly his most jazz-influenced. And like Company, the songs are all very Brechtian, never arising out of the action, but interrupting and observing it instead. It feels like a sex comedy, but it's really a concept musical, a bookend to match Company. The show is very 1970s, and that may have made it feel dated in the 80s and 90s, but today it's become a fascinating period piece, a really insightful snapshot of the end of the Sexual Revolution, and a rare look at those who didn't actually want to revolt. As with all these other shows, both audiences and reviewers were so delighted to see this "lost gem." As always, "If not us, then who?"
Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party is a genuine masterwork, very nearly a jazz opera. If you only know the cast recording, you only know about half the score. Of all the shows discussed here, this is the most adult, and it would definitely be too adult for most theatres. During the run we used to joke, "Sure, there are three sex scenes, but only two of them are rape." This is the darkest show I've ever worked on, a story about jealousy, betrayal, revenge, and sexual violence. Strangely, it's also incredibly entertaining, with six big dance numbers, and some (incredibly dark) laughs. There's very little dialogue and almost continuous music. If there was ever a source novel that needed to be adapted for the musical stage, this is it, but very few companies will be able to produce it. If you can, you should. It's a wild, amazing ride. We were all so proud of our work on this show. Audiences and reviewers were both shocked and delighted by this fearless roller coaster of a musical.
Evita -- I know, I know, since when is Evita a lesser known show? Well, it isn't produced very often, and New Line's Evita wasn't exactly the Evita you might know. I had seen the original production on Broadway, but a few years ago, I heard the original studio recording, which is way more rock and roll. And way less cold. After listening to that recording for a while, I realized that while I liked the Broadway Evita a lot, I LOVE the original rock and roll Evita. I also realized that this isn't a story about an ice-cold superbitch. It's a love story -- ironic and complex, sure, but a love story -- about Eva and Juan, and about Eva and her people. The more I read about the real Eva, the more I saw how exactly right Tim Rice had gotten her, and how wrong Patti LuPone had gotten her. So with a smaller cast, a rock band, and rock singers as Che and Eva, we brought the show back to its roots. And our audiences and reviewers went crazy for it. People were thrilled by it, telling us they felt like they had never really seen the show until now. I even got an encouraging comment on one of my blog posts from Tim Rice himself. I really encourage people to let go of what they think they know about Evita (especially that awful, shallow revival) and come at it fresh. You'll be amazed how different it is and how contemporary it feels.
The Robber Bridegroom is yet another show like no other. It's a wild and rowdy bluegrass sex comedy, folk tale, and sly commentary on sex in American culture. It's really funny, really provocative, and really insightful. As an example, the Act I finale, "Love Stolen," is the hero's moment to explain to us that he doesn't like his sex consensual. In the heroine's song "Nothin' Up," she laments that there are no men in the woods to force themselves upon her. When the Bandit of the Woods steals all of Rosamund's clothes, she doesn't run away; she does her best to seduce him, fully naked. The score's most beautiful song is "Deeper in the Woods," more loaded with sexual imagery than any other song I've ever heard -- but also gorgeous and haunting. Set in the 1790s, this is a crazy, amoral world that questions and challenges everything we've been taught about sex and love. But it's also about the joy of storytelling. It's such a wonderful show -- though definitely for adult audiences only -- and as with these other shows, our audiences and reviewers ate it up, sexual subversion and all.
The Cradle Will Rock is powerful theatre and one my favorite shows ever. Its creator Marc Blitzstein described it as “a labor opera composed in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert & Sullivan, Brecht, and agitprop.” Like Robber Bridegroom, it's very, very funny stuff, but with an incredibly dark edge -- this is serious, muscular, sometimes even angry, comedy. It's an amazing snapshot of a moment in time, the late 1930s, still in the Depression, and right at the moment when the American labor movement was exploding into action. This is nowhere near conventional musical theatre, but it's really exciting theatre, and our audiences and the reviewers utterly embraced it. On Cradle's opening night in 1937, the government shut the show down for its subversive content, so the entire production moved to another theatre, bringing the audience with them twenty-one blocks uptown. And for complicated reasons, the union actors were not allowed to appear onstage, so most of the cast performed the show from the audience. We recreated that experience when we produced the show in 2001.
A New Brain is an expressionistic masterwork. It's not traditionally linear in its storytelling, and it asks a great deal of an audience. Most of the show is spent inside Gordon's head, so it's very stream-of-consciousness. It's one of those shows that asks the audience to just go for the ride, without having to understand every moment. It's a series of snapshots that the audience assembles to form a larger picture. It's also William Finn's best work so far. I love Falsettos and Spelling Bee, but New Brain is his masterwork. It's a very challenging piece -- a genuinely experimental musical -- but it's so very worth it. Some of the audiences and reviewers loved this show, but some were really put off by the non-linear structure and they just couldn't surrender to the show's agenda. Still, it's one of the most beautiful, most emotional shows I've ever worked on. We will come back to A New Brain someday...
Bukowsical is so adult, so vulgar, so defiant, it makes these other shows look like Dames at Sea. Okay, I exaggerate. A little. It's absolutely the most R-rated show we've ever worked on -- not in terms of simulated sex (though there's some of that), but in terms of language, definitely the most vulgar you'll ever hear on the musical stage. But it's not a show that shocks its audience just for the hell of it. Bukowsical is another neo musical comedy that tells the story (fairly accurately) of the great American writer Charles Bukowski's extremely dark and damaged life and career. It's insanely funny, really fucking smart, and surely one of the most original pieces we've ever produced -- and we've produced a lot of really original work. The reviewers loved it, though it sold only moderately well, and it really freaked some people out. Still, if you've got a smart, fearless audience, it's an evening of musical theatre like no other.
Songs for a New World just may be the show that started this new Golden Age of American musical theatre, and it also was the New York debut for one of the great contemporary artists of our art form, Jason Robert Brown. This is an abstract musical, built not on story but on theme -- the "Do or Die" moments that we all face, over and over, throughout our lives. The music and lyrics are exceptional, the characters are complicated and real, and the emotions are powerful. When we produced the show in 1998, we realized that though each of the four actors plays multiple characters, each actor still has an emotional arc over the course of the show. It's a remarkable debut for a remarkable writer and composer. Truly one of the landmarks of the form. But if you produce this show, don't be fooled into thinking it's a revue of disconnected songs -- it's so much more than that. Our audiences loved this show, but several of the reviewers were baffled by it, perhaps because it was 1998 and New Line was quite a bit ahead of the mainstream of musical theatre back then. Today, the art form has caught up with us.
If I had the energy, I'd keep going, with Assassins, Jacques Brel, Hair, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and lots of other shows. I would have included the brilliant Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on my list, but to my great delight, a lot of companies across the country are producing it already. In fact, I'd recommend 90% of the shows New Line has produced over the last twenty-two seasons. If you wanna read more about these shows, I've written chapters about many of them in my six books, which you can find on my Amazon author's page.
New Line is the proof, if you needed it, that audiences don't only like what they know, that audiences crave a great adventure when they go to the theatre, that audiences love seeing exciting new work as long as it's good, and that most audiences couldn't give a rat's ass about Rodgers & Hammerstein. Twenty-two seasons of proof, going on twenty-three...
But don't just take my word for it -- see for yourself. Produce these shows!
Long Live the Musical!