Why watch this stuff over and over? Partly because I really love those shows and films, but partly because I still see new things in these works every time I watch them, new details in the background or in the camera work, tiny nuances of line delivery; and with the television shows, I notice brilliant, subtle arcs across seasons and series, and small but significant elements of rich, complex character development.
If something is really great, I never get tired of it.
I think one of the reasons I'm a good director of comedies is that no matter how many times I hear a great joke, it's still funny to me and I still laugh out loud. I think our actors like that feedback in rehearsal.
Many directors only attend a few performances of a show they've directed. Some attend only opening night. I can't imagine doing that. I see every performance of every show I direct. Because every performance is different and every audience is different, and I learn so much by watching and thinking about how the show changes from night to night and over time. It's even more interesting with Night of the Living Dead because it's such an unusual, truly original piece of musical theatre.
So many people have come up to me after performances, stunned by the power of this show, and said, "It's not at all what I expected!" And all I can think is What did you expect? Who could have expectations about what a serious zombie musical might be like? Sure, there are cute, jokey zombie musicals like Zombie Prom and Zombies from Beyond, and some amateurish parodies of Night of the Living Dead (and we all know what I think of parody musicals), but so far as I know, this is the first and only serious zombie musical.
Dead serious. (hee, hee)
I love that some nights we get huge gasps from the audience when that crazy shit goes down.
One of the things that's brilliant about the construction of this show is that, like classic horror films, the majority of the story is about waiting for the monsters, but once all hell breaks loose, it is one fierce fuckin' roller coaster ride to the end.
Also, as I watch the show over and over I start to notice all those beautiful little details of the script and score that had escaped my notice before.
Watching the prologue Friday night, it struck me how the word night goes from literal meaning to metaphor over the course of the lyric. Later, at the end of the show, it will become concrete when the power goes out, and the audience literally experiences the central metaphor of the show. I realized how potent the metaphor of day and night, light and dark, are throughout the entire show (the same is true of Next to Normal), and NOTLD's prologue sets all that up. It's divided into two sections: "Perfect" and "Night." The past, when everything was fine (or was it?), is always remembered in daylight, but the present and its zombie apocalypse is always at night.
The prologue even walks us through the metaphor, starting with describing the perfect morning, then an ideal afternoon, but then we segue into "Night." In Shakespeare plays, the woods is the place of mystery and transformation; in horror, it's the night. I don't know if the writers were conscious that they were mirroring their source, the first of a trilogy of films whose titles were about the progression of time – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. Time is the enemy in zombie films, because things never get better over time, only worse.
In this second part of the prologue, these doomed characters sing:
If only he would have...
If only they didn't...
If only I waited for two more minutes…
I’d never be here...
I’d never be there...
I’d never be where I was
If I knew it would bring us
Maybe these characters aren't guilty individually for bringing on the night, but this show suggests that they – we – are guilty collectively.
In the prologue, the lyric talks of "pictures from a nightmare, shattering the frame." It's not hard to read that as the Sexual Revolution and the counter-culture of the 1960s shattering the constraints and shackles of 1950s mainstream conformity. To much of the country (like Archie Bunker), that was a nightmare. And that nightmare is only over at the end of our story when morning comes again. Or is it over? Can it ever be over? I can't help but think of Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign theme...
This theme of day and night is all over the show. In "Drive," Harry and Helen sing about a daylight world, in which the world was safe and maybe their marriage was salvageable. It seems like they were happy, but maybe that's just a trick of memory. As this song slips from the concrete world into metaphor (as other songs in the show often do), as their afternoon drive becomes a metaphor for their marriage, the theme of day and night attaches to their relationship. In the daylight world, they may have been a little lost in the swirl of changing cultural norms, but at least they were still moving, at least they weren't doomed.
Sometimes we didn’t know
If the left or right or straight or back would lead us
To where we wanted to go.
We didn’t know why,
Somewhere, we didn’t know,
Where the left or right or straight or back would lead us...
Picnic at five...
It was only a drive.
The phrase "a perfect" there at the end reflects back to the first part of the prologue, "Perfect," and it also points ahead (though the audience doesn't know it yet) to the ironic reprise of "Perfect" at the end. In this world, perfect only exists in the past tense.
Likewise, "This House, This Place" juxtaposes Judy's daylight memories of driving past this house and seeing its old lady, against the men upstairs finding a nighttime horror. And though they're only talking around it at this point, we'll slowly learn that the old lady who lived here may have been denied rescue by Harry and the others. And Judy knows that as she shares these memories. There's so much going on in this song.
After that, Harry sings his sick daughter Karen a lullaby, a kind of song only sung at night. Interestingly, his lyric has no punctuation in the script:
Just close your eyes
Is he singing, "Just close your eyes forever..." or is he singing, "Forever, I'm here..."...? Is he sending her off to permanent night or reassuring her that the night won't get her? If you know zombie movies you hear it one way; it you don't, you might hear it the other way. I love that the writers didn't take a clear position...
In Tom and Judy's horror/love song "We'll Be Alright," they use the word dark twenty-five times. The variations are interesting – it always comes in a prepositional phrase, in the dark, out of the dark, out in the dark; and it's almost always connected to abandonment, Judy's biggest fear. In the song's second half, the chorus and bridge of the song alternate with dialogue scenes that are set "out in the dark," by the gas pump behind the house. Here, dark refers to the night, to the dangers of the night, to the specter of impending death-by-zombie, but also to separation from the "light" of Tom and Judy's (arguably misogynistic, unhealthy) love.
Significantly, in "Johnny and Me," Barbra's tour de force final song (aria?), one of the central textual themes is about time of day, running out of daylight, etc. She sings:
And he said, "Oh it’s late," said Johnny,
"Why did we start so late?"
And I said "Johnny,
If you’d gotten up earlier,
We wouldn't be so late."
We wouldn't get home till after midnight,
Said Johnny, and oh, it’s so late...
At the very end of the show, the epilogue returns us to small, fragmented memories of The World Before the Night. As our story ends (don't worry, no spoilers here), we realize that these people – both themselves and as representatives of us all -- did bring us the night. The violence and anger of the 1960s is bottled up in this Pennsylvania farmhouse and it explodes.
Steve Callahan wrote in his review of the show for KDHX:
By approaching these rather two-dimensional characters with such deep seriousness the cast leads us to consider some thoughts that make this show more than just a zombie thriller: How fragile is peace. How fragile is happiness. Death, despair, catastrophe can come suddenly, with no warning. War, a tornado, an economic crash – they can destroy us in a moment, just like a horde of zombies. It's no use saying "If only we'd stayed at home!" or "If only I'd left two minutes sooner!" We must ask ourselves how we would behave in such a moment.
Steve calls them two-dimensional characters, and suggests we added depth to them, but I disagree. I think both the source film and this stage adaptation have great depth and great emotional and political resonance, just as much for these times as for the sixties. We just followed where the script and score led us. These are rich, complicated, and hopelessly real characters and relationships, and the fireworks come easily.
The zombies are just the match that lights the fuse.
We've got two more weeks to run this beautiful, scary, brilliant piece of musical theatre. If you love musical theatre and if you're excited about the future of the art form, you need to see this show. It will blow your mind.
Long Live the Musical!