And You're Shining Like the Brightest Star

I often declare, here and elsewhere, that we're in the midst of a new Golden Age of American Musical Theatre. My experience so far has been that most people under 30 accept that as true, once they think about it for a second. Most people over 50 immediately resist the idea; the idea even angers some of them.

At first, I enjoyed making this declaration because it was sort of provocative -- even when I didn't say it outright, it was implied that a new Golden Age necessarily means that Rodgers & Hammerstein shows are now museum pieces. And I honestly think that's the case. Musical theatre is changing in substantial ways.

I've been living inside this art form since before I can remember; going back to my very earliest memories, the only music I listened to was Broadway shows. So I think I have a special perspective. I was born the year Cole Porter died and the last successful R&H-style show, Fiddler on the Roof, opened; I came of age as the concept musical and the rock musical came of age; and I started New Line and started writing my musical theatre books at the same time this new Golden Age began.

I'm very cuspy. I was born on the cusp between old-fashioned musical theatre and modern musical theatre. I was born on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation X. I was born on the cusp between the Age of Conformity and the Age of Irony. I was even born on the cusp between Aquarius and Pisces.

And I've been watching the revolution. No, I've been living the revolution.

New Line was founded right around the same time as this new Golden Age began, in the early/mid-1990s. There weren't all that many new works in our early seasons, other than shows I wrote (which saved us having to pay royalties). After all, our first season was several years before Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, or Bat Boy would appear...

So a lot of our early work was about reinterpreting famous shows (like Camelot), making them more intimate, more serious, more subtextual, and in some cases, returning them to what they were in the beginning, before they became summer stock and high school favorites (like Pippin). Though it wasn't conscious, in retrospect it seems we were assessing the State of the Art, before we could move forward into the revolution.

There were a few exciting new works back then -- we did Assassins in 1994 (and 1998 and 2008) and The Ballad of Little Mikey in 1997. But it was Songs for a New World, which first opened in New York in 1995 and which we produced in 1998, that seemed to mark the beginning of a real renaissance in musical theatre writing and a new direction for New Line. Soon we were doing Floyd Collins, A New Brain, Bat Boy, Hedwig, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, Love Kills, The Wild Party, bare, Passing Strange, Next to Normal... you get the idea.

And today, I feel like the art form is stretching itself even more than it has before, maybe reaching its highest level yet. There are so many exciting and varied new shows right now -- Lizzie, Dogfight, American Idiot, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Murder Ballad, Hands on a Hardbody, Here Lies Love, Big Fish, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County... I don't think we've had a period this fertile and this eclectic since the late 60s and early 70s.

And the writing talent the art form has right now is unbelievable -- Bill Finn, Stephen Schwartz, Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa, Tom Kitt, Amanda Green, Lin Manuel Miranda, Adam Guettel, Bobby Lopez, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Larry O'Keefe, Steve Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, as well as so many rock artists, who can see at last what an interesting and powerful art form ours can be, artists like Bono, Elton John, Cyndi Lauper, Randy Newman, Trey Anastasio, Adam Schlesinger, Billie Joe Armstrong, John Mellancamp, Tom Waits, Edie Brickell... and there are more...

It's exciting to watch evolution happen from the inside.

When I was a kid, Rodgers & Hammerstein were the norm, and I did love those scores. Even though Hammerstein was already dead by the time I was born, Rodgers was still writing. I wish I had been more aware of the Sondheim Revolution and the emergence of the concept musical. I didn't discover Company till I got to college in 1982. I was later horrified to find out that the original cast of Follies had done the show here at The Muny, right after they closed on Broadway (on their way to L.A., I think), and I missed it. Granted, I would have been only about seven or eight, but still...

I was more aware of the emergence of the rock musical in the 70s, as I discovered Grease, Godspell, JC Superstar, and Rocky Horror; and by the 80s, I was closely watching the musical theatre (which still meant essentially just Broadway), buying lots of cast albums, subscribing to Playbill, Show Music Magazine, and The Firesign Theatre Book Club (the best!), anything I could get my hands on about musicals. I watched the British Invasion happen in the 80s, and though I liked some of the mega-musicals, they just weren't the same to me. They weren't rowdy and muscular and ironic, the way I had grown to like my musicals. And the mega-musical's monstrous economics put the American musical into an artistic full-body cast for a while.

But then I got to see, up close and personal, the rebirth of the American musical in the 1990s. As New Line was taking its first steps and discovering its process, the art form was being reinvented by a bunch of fearless and wildly creative artists, who were taking from what had gone before and creating something entirely new, the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical.

These new writers rejected the manipulative sentimentality of the mega-musicals, offering in its place a post-modern minimalism, irony, black comedy, self-awareness, politics, sexuality, authenticity, artistry, powerful emotions, and above all, muscle. And every one of these incredible musicals was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, everything from raw, visceral drama to outrageous "serious comedy." These were shows that demanded and deserved respect. And because many of then were genuinely revolutionary, they did not all run on Broadway. Some of them never even ran in New York. But the art form was finally outgrowing its commercial constraints. New York was no longer the only place to produce new musicals. Now there were other paths. From now on, Broadway would just be the commercial arm of the art form, no longer the art form itself. That was important. Freed from economics, musical theatre artists began taking risks like never before.

The result was work like Songs for a New World, a brilliant, adult, abstract musical that will probably never have a commercial run. And yet the show has been produced all over the country for years. It doesn't need Broadway to survive. Though I doubt Jason Robert Brown intended it, his show's title announced the coming revolution. Musical theatre would be a new world from that point forward.

And then Rent took us the next step. For the first time, a Broadway musical had teenage groupies! Young people liking a musical? Jonathan Larson didn't live to see it happen, but he did what he always intended, to meld Broadway musical tradition with contemporary content and musical language, into the neo rock musical.

(I realized recently that this revolution in the musical theatre began around the same time as the HBO Revolution in television that began what many are now calling a new Golden Age of television. What was it about the 1990s that seeded these two amazing artistic movements? I think the answer in both cases has to do with artistic freedom. The audacious Cop Rock (1990) was just a few years too early and was strangled in its infancy by network executives.)

In the early days of New Line, it was sometimes a challenge to find three shows to fill a season, that all really fit New Line's philosophy. But we soon found that kind of show in the experimental 1960s and 70s, and we produced Anyone Can Whistle, The Robber Bridegroom, Cabaret, Jacques Brel, Company, Hair, Man of La Mancha, Rocky Horror, etc. But today we're doing more new shows than ever before. There are actually too many outstanding, exciting, new shows for the number of slots we have in our season.

But hey, that's a good problem to have, right?

The musical theatre is on fire. And it shows no sign of slowing down. And New Line is part of that.

The real thrill for me is that I get to talk to -- and sometimes meet -- my real heroes, the writers. And now thanks to social media and YouTube, a lot of us get to hear from these artists. Because there's now a "theatre press" on the web, we get a better glimpse into the creation process than ever before. Fans and artists across the country are more connected than ever before. And so many young writers, directors, and actors are creating really interesting new musical theatre, all over America.

I've been saying this for five or six years now, but every year it's more true than the year before -- repeat after me: We are in a new Golden Age of the American musical theatre. It began in the mid-1990s and it's still evolving. Our art form has never been more vigorous or more adventurous, and there are young writers just now beginning to write for us, who are going to blow open the possibilities of musical theatre even wider than they already have been.
Just listen...

And fasten your seatbelt...

This is Scott Miller, reporting live from inside the Revolution...

Long live the Musical!