What's Happening Here?

Monday night we had our Night of the Living Dead read-through-sing-through. It was very cool to hear the whole show. A lot of companies start their process with a read-through, but we decided long ago that the read-through was of more value to us, gave us a better sense of the show, if the actors were singing everything. So we learn all the music first.

I don't love read-throughs. We need to do them so the actors can get a sense of the shape of the show, the longer arcs of the story, and their own characters' progress through the songs they've already learned. But we don't get much sense of the energy or "magic" of the show, particularly in this case, since so much of the action is physical -- which on Monday night was our stage manager Gabe just reading lots of stage directions.

Then last night we started staging the show. And I find myself following a familiar process...

I've spent months thinking about this show, what it's about, how it feels, how it moves, how it looks, its energy, its intensity, all that. So I've got a pretty good intellectual understanding of the material. But my confidence wavers a bit on the first night of staging. I stage something, look at it, and think, Is that right? Does that look right? We're so far from the final product right now, and I want so badly for the actors to see in their heads what I see in mine, but they're not all gonna see that yet. I have to be patient as we build this thing, block by block, and over time everyone will understand the path we're on.

Back in 2000, we produced Hair for the first time. And let me tell ya, looking at that script for the first time is fucking terrifying. So much of it doesn't make sense (which is why I wrote a book about it), and it's missing most of its stage directions, which makes it all even harder to decode. Luckily for me, just as we were starting work, I found a national online discussion group about Hair, that included the show's original Broadway producer Michael Butler, several members of the original cast, and the show's official historian.

So the whole time we worked, I'd send them emails asking about moments in the show, what they meant, how they were handled originally, and these folks wrote me back long emails with tons of wonderful detail, including a lengthy description of the original choreography for "Aquarius," which we then used as the basis for our staging. But the most important and valuable thing they told me was to trust the material.

I had directed a few really odd shows already -- Assassins, Songs for a New World, March of the Falsettos, Jacques Brel, Floyd Collins -- but I had never encountered a piece of theatre like this in my life. So I took their advice. I trusted the material. I focused just on moving us forward, with complete, blind faith in the show.

And it totally paid off. None of us fully understood what Hair was until our first audience leapt to their feet at the end of our first performance, tears streaming down their cheeks, and then we understood everything. I remember so many of the actors returning to the dressing rooms that night saying, "I get it now!"

I do understand our Night of the Living Dead -- I've been living with it for a couple of years -- but I don't know if the actors do yet. Like many of the shows New Line produces, this show is utterly unlike any other. It has its own rules, its own style and tone, its own kind of music. It's very exciting to work on shows like that, but it's also hard. When someone's directing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, they have a lot of rules and conventions that are givens. But with musicals like Night of the Living Dead, Love Kills, Assassins, High Fidelity, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Passing Strange, Bukowsical, and so many other New Line shows, it's like someone has just given you a new board game you've never seen before, and you open it, and there are no instructions or rules. You know it'll be fun, but how the hell do you play it...?

Honestly, one of the reasons we haven't done Rent before, is that I thought the original Broadway production was essentially perfect, and I didn't want to work on a show where the "instructions" were that obvious. It wasn't until after seeing the recent off Broadway revival of Rent that I realized it's okay to throw those instructions away, good as they are, and start over. So we're doing Rent this season.

I haven't blocked Night of the Living Dead beyond where we stopped last night. Sometimes I block huge chunks of a show before we ever start rehearsal. But this time, I needed to get it on its feel, see what it feels like, see if the path I've set us on seems right or if it needs recalibrating.

I'm debating watching the movie again. Since the show is fairly different in a lot of ways, I don't think seeing the film again would get in my way, and it might offer a few easy solutions. Not sure...

We were all so excited to start work a couple weeks ago, learning this gorgeous music, and we were all excited to get up on our feet last night. But there's a lot of hard work ahead. Some scenes are very minimalist and physically static, but there are also several "action" scenes, fights, etc. All of it poses challenges.

Really, I think the only show I've ever done at New Line that was easy to stage was Spelling Bee. I guess the kind of show that's easy to stage is the kind of show New Line doesn't produce. And I have only myself to thank for that.

The adventure continues. I'll keep you posted.

Long Live the Musical!