Don't Close Your Eyes

Because Night of the Living Dead is a shorter show than our usual fare, rehearsals have been shorter and our rehearsal calendar has been shorter too. I don't know if short, intermission-less shows are the new trend – our last season included two recent examples, both Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Bukowsical – but Content Dictates Form. Like BBAJ and Bukowsical, Night of the Living Dead is a roller coaster, which would be hurt considerably by an intermission.

The show creates an almost unbearable amount of tension that builds steadily toward the show's final moments. It's beautifully crafted and I would no more violate that craft than I would cut Georges Seurat's famous Sunday in the Park painting into two pieces.

It always drives me crazy when I see a show that was written without an intermission (Pippin, 1776, Man of La Mancha, A Chorus Line, Assassins, etc.), and the production crams an intermission in anyway. You can't just do that. A show with an intermission has two arcs, one that builds to the end of Act I, and another that builds to the end of Act II. A show with no intermission has one arc. You can stop the show for an intermission, but that doesn't give it two arcs – it just interrupts the story and the audience's experience.

The action of this show is essentially continuous – we jump time occasionally during the story, through some stylized transitions the authors created – but the action of the story plays out over one night. Adding an intermission would break the writers' very careful build-up of tension, and that would have to be established all over again for Act II.

And really, I've never understood why a theatre audience needs an intermission during a two-hour show but movie audiences don't need the same. Producers and directors justify adding an intermission because "people need a break." No they don't. If they can sit through a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy without an intermission, they can sit through Pippin without an intermission.

Part of this comes from a problem that I often rage against – directors who don't spend much time thinking about the show itself, the script and score, how they operate together, what the authors intended, how the storytelling functions, what the point of the story is, all that stuff.

I believe we serve the writers first, and by doing that, we serve the show and the audience. I've learned that when I can't figure out how to stage a particular moment in a show, it's almost always that I just don't fully understand it; it's rare that the material is at fault. I'm all in favor of new approaches or interpretations of a show, but they must come from the script and score, not from the director's desire to impress or surprise.

In other words, as cool as steampunk is, you can't just impose it on a show for its own sake. I've been noticing a lot of young directors around the country doing this. A steampunk Cabaret might look cool, but it'll leave the audience confused and it will violate the material. Those choices must come from the story. Content dictates form. And honestly, I think steampunk has already over-stayed its welcome, don't you...?

Now, with Night of the Living Dead, we have strayed a bit from the authors' intent. The script calls for a very minimalist, impressionistic setting, and we're creating a much more real physical environment for our show. But we thought about it a lot and my impression is that the writers endorse our decision.

My job is not to be noticed or praised or showered with awards (no risk there). My job is to take the story on the page and bring it to life onstage in the clearest possible way, so that the audience gets every morsel they can possibly get from the story. In a really well-crafted, sophisticated show, the audience won't get everything because there's so much going on, but even so, our job is to give them every possible chance to catch everything in there.

One of my favorite parts of my job is that I often get to talk with the writers of shows we work on. I get to ask them questions, have conversations with them about their material, etc. As much as I love actors – working with them, watching them create, seeing them hold an audience – the writers are my real heroes. While others might wait at the stage door to meet Audra McDonald or Petina Miller, my coolest "celebrity" moments were meeting Sondheim, Ahrens and Flaherty, Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, Amanda Green, and the four writers of Cry-Baby (at the funniest brunch I've ever had).

About a week ago, I got to talk on the phone for quite a while with both NOTLD writers, Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith. It was so helpful, just to hear them talk about their show, about the characters, their reasons for choices they made, their impressions of the movie, where the impetus for certain songs came from, etc. They're both incredibly cool guys and they seem to really trust us with their baby.

As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. Or as Jesus put it, to whom much is given, much is expected. Maybe it doesn't seem like I have much power, but I do have the power to cluelessly ruin Matt and Stephen's show if I don't treat it with intelligence and respect. And from Matt and Stephen's perspective, that's power...

I don't go see a lot of musicals locally anymore. It's so hard for me to see a show I love, especially if it's a show I've directed and/or written about, done cluelessly or disrespectfully (a local production of Godspell a few years ago completely rearranged and redistributed all the dialogue in the show, as well as all the songs, destroying the structure and form of the show). One of the reasons it's hard is that it kills me to watch the audience leave after a mediocre or bad production, knowing that they didn't see this musical at its best, as it was meant to be, knowing that they've formed a lower opinion about the show than it deserves. Godspell isn't just cute.

Sometimes I wanna run after the people leaving, shouting, "No, really, it's so much better than that!"

Or I see productions that imitate the original production slavishly, but only on the surface, without understanding the reasons and motivations for those choices. Again, the result is shallow, and the audience doesn't really get to see the show as it was meant to be, its heart and soul.

One of the reasons New Line so often gets the rights to shows before anyone else is we've got a phenomenal track record, but the other reason is that writers feel comfortable with us. They know our first priority is to serve the show they wrote as best we can. When we depart radically from how a show was first produced, it's always because we think there's a better, clearer way to tell the story the writers have given us. The original production of Jesus Christ Superstar was not what Rice and Lloyd Webber wanted. New Line's very different take on that material was much closer conceptually to what Tim Rice was originally after. We completely reconceived both High Fidelity and Cry-Baby, because both were misunderstood and badly abused by their original Broadway production teams. We fundamentally reconceived Bukowsical, but with the writers' permission, and once they saw it, their full endorsement.

There are two reasons why I almost never do curtain speeches before our shows. First, I fucking hate curtain speeches. Second, the audience didn't come to see me. A show is not about its director (unless it's Fosse). I don't need recognition, credit, or praise – I just want our audiences to connect powerfully with our work and to have an amazing night in the theatre.

We've had one full run-through of Night of the Living Dead so far, and it went really well. This weekend, we're loading the set into the theatre, and starting Monday, we'll be running the whole show at every rehearsal, on the set. We get two and a half weeks on the set before we put the show in front of an audience, and that's a real luxury.

From here on out, my role is to edit the performances the actors have been creating. I've written in past posts about my process – I set us on the right road, I try to stay out of the actors' way as they create, and then I edit that work and make sure it all blends into a seamless whole, to tell the clearest, cleanest narrative possible.

That's my job. I'm the director. I'm not the writer of the show or of the film it's based on. I'm just its shepherd. When I was a young director, I wanted to show off sometimes. Not anymore. That's not my job.

Now comes my favorite part of the process. I'll keep you posted...

Long Live the Musical!