A guy I know came to see the show Saturday night. I don't think he's really a theatre guy, and I know he really loves the film, so I wasn't sure what he'd think of our Night of the Living Dead.
After the show, he called it "tremendous" three times. He said, and I quote, "I love the original film, but this is so much more compelling."
Almost everybody who talks to me after performances talks about Matt Conner's music first. People love this music (and these voices and this band!). That's a little bit of a surprise to me because some of the score is somewhat unconventional music, and I wasn't sure how people would receive it. But people love it, perhaps because it's so expressionistic, so emotional. I think audiences connect with Matt's music on a more visceral, primal level than with most musicals. The music feels like fear and danger and uncertainty and regret. The more I listen to Matt's music, the more I hear his habits, his favorite chords, his favorite rhythms. It's so fun when you know music well enough to hear that stuff. I remember when it happened to me with Songs for a New World and March of the Falsettos. I really felt like I knew Jason Robert Brown and Bill Finn better after that. You may not have heard of Matt Conner before now, but there's a reason I'm grouping him with JRB and Finn. He's a really interesting, really original composer with a really rich, really ballsy musical personality.
I think many people walk in, utterly bewildered by what a serious zombie musical might be like. But the show's prologue is just "alternative" enough musically to announce the unique voice of this show, so that by the time the prologue ends, with Ben rushing into the dark house and slamming the door behind him, breathing hard, the audience knows what kind of ride we're going on, and every night, they're up for it.
I never thought I'd say it about this show, but there are several low, knowing laughs that we get at nearly every performance, and they tell me that the audience is listening, that they know who everyone onstage is and their relationships, and that they're invested in what happens to these people. It's those laughs that confirm for me what strong, clear storytelling this is.
It occurred to me Saturday night that my long-held preconceptions about Tom are not at all where the character in the musical took us. Thinking about it now, the guy who played Tom in the film was really terrible, but he had an alpha male look about him, so I always assumed Tom was an alpha and maybe would've grown up to be Harry if he could've grown up.
But the script delivers up a very weak (and arguably more interesting) Tom to us. In between these two alpha bulls, Harry and Ben, Tom is entirely passive. He's a pinball. And the irony is that we see how he's made Judy weak and passive, and now he's becoming Judy. In the truck scene, Judy almost becomes the alpha for a moment... but then pays for it... It's not the Seventies yet...
I've also noticed a number of textual themes throughout the show. I realized the other night that characters are constantly talking about or referring to the time. That's partly about giving the audiences signposts as we move through the night, but it's also important in its content. Horror is about waiting, about when the monster will attack and our heroes will die or escape. In this version of Night of the Living Dead, each time a broadcast happens we hear the words Please stand by repeated over and over, rhythmically, like an incantation. All they can do is wait. But horror – especially zombie movies – is also about inevitability, the idea that time is not your friend, that time will not heal all wounds, that time is limited.
One of the most common narrative structures is the Ticking Clock. A deadline – especially a life-or-death deadline – is inherently suspenseful. In crime dramas, they have to catch the murderer before he kills again. In Dracula, they have to kill him before the sun goes down. In High Fidelity, Rob wants to win Laura back before she sleeps with Ian. In a lot of classic Star Trek episodes, they use a wide variety of ticking clocks: their warp drive is damaged and their orbit around a planet is disintegrating and they'll burn up in XXX hours and minutes; or some of the crew catch some wild space disease and they have XXX days or hours to live unless an antidote is found; or Spock's brain is stolen and his body can only live so long without it... You get the idea...
And of course in a horror movie, the heroes have to escape before the monster gets them. Or before they become the monster.
In Night of the Living Dead, Harry becomes the monster even without getting bit. It's fear and ego that infect him. And he forces Ben to become the monster too. We have met the enemy and he is us.
One of the things I'm proudest of is the character of Ben. I had read in an interview with George Romero that he had not written Ben to be a black guy; it's just that a black guy was the best actor among Romero's friends, so he cast him as Ben. Romero swears they never changed a word because of the character's changed race. So when we didn't have any black actors audition who were right for the role, I decided to give it to Zak Farmer. Zak has played everything from super silly to super serious for New Line, from Proteus in Two Gents to Sheriff Merle Karnopp in Love Kills. He might be the best actor I've ever worked with.
It's also wonderful that in our show, Ben is so much taller than Harry, so their struggle for power (and for the gun) becomes sort of darkly ridiculous. And Mike Dowdy as Harry is also doing some outstanding acting work, so his frequent clashes with Ben are so intense, so violent, and so obviously complicated under the surface.
I think a lot of directors would have the impulse to play everything over the top, very high energy, because it's about zombies. But the key to this show is that it's not really about zombies. Our actors approached this show like they were doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or August: Osage County, with complete conviction and seriousness of purpose.
I think this show only really works if the acting is very good and very serious. If we want our audience to buy into the wild premise of our story, we have to make that world utterly real. No winking at the audience. No ironic distance. It's still funny to me that all four of the adult characters in our show are played by actors who are usually New Line's go-to comedians, always eager to be outrageous and fearless. Sarah and Marcy were both bad-ass drape girls in Cry-Baby, but now they're intensely believable as an unhappy housewife and a catatonic girl. Until now I wasn't sure how I knew these four would be so right for these roles, but now I see it. It's about fearlessness. There are some excellent serious actors who are not fearless but are still very skilled, talented actors. But outrageous comedians are always fearless. And fearlessness is absolutely vital to the success of this piece of theatre.
And to the success of almost every other show we produce, now that I think about it.
My guess is that many people think of New Line as the Outrageous Company because we do shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, Cry-Baby, and The Wild Party. But we also do a lot of very serious work, like Next to Normal, bare, and Love Kills. And we've seen on our stage some of the finest acting anywhere in the St. Louis theatre scene.
I know that even after twenty-three seasons of New Line Theatre, there are some in the local theatre community who still think musicals are silly and trivial. Like Republicans and Obamacare, these "serious" theatre people are too afraid of having their misconceptions challenged to see our shows or read our reviews and see for themselves the remarkable work our artists do on every show.
Music doesn't diminish drama; it enhances it.
I think a lot of people assume that a musical version of Night of the Living Dead couldn't possibly be a serious piece of theatre. But this is. And you can see the delight on people's faces after performances when they almost all say exactly the same words: It's not at all what I expected!
That's what we do.
Only three more performances. Don't miss this. Or we'll chew your arm off.
Long Live the Musical!