So Perfect...

As I said in an earlier post about Night of the Living Dead, the show's creators, Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith, have skillfully avoided the trap most theatre writers fall into when adapting a film for the musical stage. They have not just put the screenplay up onstage and added songs (as was done with Big, Young Frankenstein, and too many other shows). Even though their show is pretty faithful to the source film, Conner and Smith have reimagined this story for the musical stage. They have translated George Romero's storytelling devices into the language of the musical theatre.

They've found inside this story the impetus for musicalizing it. A lot of young writers ask me how to know when a film or book is right for musical adaptation. The answer is emotion. Because music is an abstract language, it expresses emotion better than just words alone can. So if a story is fundamentally about emotion, it's ripe for musicalization. Look at High Fidelity, Kiss of the Spider Woman, South Pacific, Man of La Mancha, Spring Awakening, or Jason Robert Brown's newest show, The Bridges of Madison County.

Even the more cynical, more smartass musicals must be emotional at their core, if they're to succeed. Look at Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bat Boy, or Urinetown. (I'll set aside glorified sketch comedy like Silence! the Musical and Evil Dead the Musical since I don't consider that kind of show very good theatre.)

In Night of the Living Dead, like any horror story, emotions are front and center – fear, despair, anger, confusion. So it makes a great musical.

But as I prepare to start staging the show this week, I have some things to grapple with. Conner and Smith have employed some unusual narrative devices, and I have to think about how to treat them. Much of this show appears pretty naturalistic (apart from the fact that they sing), but the writers use two devices that are decidedly not naturalistic.

First, the show has a prologue and an epilogue, in which the actors are both Greek chorus and characters in the narrative.

Two pieces make up the prologue. In the first, "Perfect," the characters give us a sense of the world just before everything turned upside down:
It was a quiet morning,
Not a cloud in the sky;
The most picturesque morning
To ever meet the eye;
A most beautiful,
Don’t close your eyes and miss a single moment
Kind of day.
. . .
So perfect...

This lyric returns at the end of the show, but this time ironically. At the beginning, this lyric describes the "balance" that our zombie narrative will throw out of whack. At the end, it's a darkly ironic reminder of the world before and after the zombies attack, implying what we all know – that things will never be "perfect" again. Perhaps we could argue that we have returned to a kind of balance at the end, but a very different balance than before.

The second part of the prologue, "Night," sets up the writers' other unusual narrative device. Periodically throughout the show, there are broadcasts from the radio and TV, and each time the actors sing those broadcasts in rich, though sometimes dissonant harmony. Later on, this will be part of the action of the show; but here in the prologue, it's establishing the rules for the evening.

Stephen Sondheim says that the writers of a musical (or any other narrative form) can use any device they want, as long as they use it in the first ten minutes (or so) of the show, to tell the audience These are the rules we'll follow tonight. You can have direct narration, dance or other stylized movement, puppets, mime, a killer plant, Shakespeare in Space, fractured time, narrative pointillism, whatever you want, as long as you tell the audience what they're in for.

Here in the prologue, it's not an "actual" broadcast as it will be later; here it serves as set-up, as the broadcasts that these people have already heard before our story starts. It's both the establishment of a device and some backstory.

But after establishing the broadcast device, this second piece transitions into stream-of-consciousness, as we move inside these characters' minds, into the irrational, strictly emotional parts of their minds. The movie can't go inside their heads; we can only read emotion on the film actors' faces. But in the inherently non-naturalistic form of a musical, we can go inside their heads, chaotic and frightened as those heads might be:
If only he would have...
If only he didn’t...
If only I waited for two more minutes…
If we’d stayed at home...
Keep them out of here...

This piece – and the prologue – ends with one line repeating, "What's happening here?", the dominant emotion for every character in the story. Perhaps the dominant emotion for many people in America today. But composer Conner doesn't give us the final "button" on the song and the emotional release of the applause that button would trigger. No, they don't want to us to have release. This is a thriller. They want tension. So the first scene interrupts the prologue with a door slam before it can finish. It's abrupt, loud, unmusical. And it subtly establishes that front door as a major element in the story to come.

But how do I stage this prologue and epilogue? I learned long ago that staging should never be about me showing the audience I'm clever and creative. Staging should always be about making the action and story as clear as possible to the audience. Sondheim has said in interviews that he cares less about whether an audience likes his show – that's so subjective and really beyond his control – but he cares very much about clarity. Does the audience understand everything he's saying?

So what do we need to do physically to achieve that clarity? Do I have all the actors standing still for these pieces, to visually separate these moments from the rest of the show? Do I have them on the set or outside the set and "outside" the story? If they are standing still, do I line them up across the stage, or confine them to one small area? After all, this is a story largely about waiting, so do I reflect that in our prologue? Are they ghosts, trapped here where they died, passing on to us the lessons none of them learned in life?

In describing the show, the early promotional materials said, "Six strangers are trapped in a house for eternity, reliving the last night of their lives over and over as a deadly force from the outside threatens to find its way in." That might support the idea that they're ghosts in the prologue and epilogue...

This is not a show that's mostly music – in fact, music happens in this show only when we go inside someone's head for a memory or flashback. The only exceptions to that are the broadcasts and the lullaby Harry and Helen sing to their daughter, although you could argue the lullaby also subliminally explores their emotions and the terrible knowledge they're refusing to acknowledge. Significantly, the lyric of the lullaby really doesn't say anything at all – and that says everything.

I've got a pretty big staging vocabulary when it comes to highly stylized musicals, since we do so many of them – The Wild Party, Love Kills, Assassins, Passing Strange, Jacques Brel, Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, Two Gents, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and so many others. But the thing here is that this show is both a highly stylized musical in certain moments, and in other moments, really not stylized at all. Like Floyd Collins, there are two worlds here, the naturalistic world in which they board up windows and fight with each other, and the stylized world when we go inside their heads.

Does the prologue have to establish both those styles? Maybe not. Maybe I only need to establish the stylization, since the first scene after the prologue will establish the other world. The first song after the prologue is Barbara's duet with the music box, which almost exactly mirrors the same scene in the film.

I haven't made up my mind about all this yet. I have quite a few options on the table. I've found over the years that sometimes things like this have to percolate in the back of my head for a while before the right answer emerges.

So I'm percolating.

One thing I've learned from Hal Prince and Jim Lapine is that it's okay to come to the wrong answer now, as long as we find the right one later. Sometimes I need to see it onstage to know if it works. Sometimes I need to see it onstage with sets and lights and costumes to know if it works. But we always figure it out.

The only thing I have to be sure of, is that we're on the right road. And we are. As long as we stay on that road, we'll get where we're going. I used to worry about this stuff, but not anymore, because I know we always find the right road. So what does it matter if the right answer comes tonight or in two weeks? If everybody had to have all the right answers at the beginning, we would't need rehearsal.

It's a process. And when the writing is this good, it's a really fun, really exciting process.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!