St. Louis really loves its musicals, and it's always been that way. I assume it's because of the Muny. I sometimes wonder if the Muny didn't exist, would my parents have known as many musicals, would our family have owned as many cast albums, would I have discovered and fallen in love with the musical theatre in my childhood, and would I be making musicals today...?
(And by the way, can I just say for the record that Mike Isaacson is the best thing that's ever happened to the Muny.)
There's a big musical theatre audience in St. Louis, enough to support touring shows at the Fox and the Peabody, and ninety-six seasons of the Muny, and Stages' sold-out runs, not to mention lots of great productions of musicals by local universities and community theatres. Lucky for us, there's a subset of that big audience who wants to see Spamalot at the Muny and also wants to see a serious zombie musical based on Night of the Living Dead.
I'm so grateful to everyone who came to see Night of the Living Dead (especially on game nights). Every night the audience was so fully engaged, many of them leaning forward a lot, and we could tell from their reactions how completely they bought into our story. We treated it like it was Albee or Miller, and the audience accepted that seriousness. So many people told me the show was not what they expected ("That's what we do," I sometimes responded), but their response to our show was not what I expected.
I knew the script and score were good. I knew we had a really strong cast, all of them fearless. But I'd never directed a horror musical before. I'd directed Sweeney Todd, but that has so many elements of musical comedy (not the least of which is the "townspeople" chorus), while Night of the Living Dead is a musical horror movie. Take pretty much everything funny out of Sweeney and you'll get a sense of NOTLD. But I didn't know a.) if people would take it seriously; b.) if it would be actually scary, like a good horror movie; and c.) if our audience would understand and accept the way the writers use music, which is sometimes very unconventional.
To our delight, the answer to all three was Yes. Every night.
The great director Gregory Mosher once said, "I have great faith in audiences. We only create problems when we treat them as customers instead of collaborators in an artistic process. . . We can let audiences down in all kinds of ways: by being dishonest with them, by betraying our own intentions and, therefore, betraying the audience's trust. All they ask the artists to do is what the artists want to do. Audiences say, 'I want to see what you want to show me.' " That's so true.
I loved how often Dowdy and Sarah, as Harry and Helen, got these very low, tense laughs from the audience, because it reassured us each night that the audience was following the characters and story. We were guaranteed one pretty hearty laugh every night – and I think the audience was grateful for the tension release...
HARRY: There’s got to be another gun here somewhere. Check the bedroom.
TOM: The bedroom?
HARRY: Helen keeps hers in the night stand.
BEN: Sounds like trouble waiting to happen.
HARRY: (searching) Nothing.
BEN: Not every married woman feels the need for a weapon next to their bed.
HARRY: It’s not just her; I have one too, on my side.
BEN: At least the odds are even.
Even though they're talking about guns, and even though we all think Harry might want a gun so he can shoot Ben, it is funny dialogue (if you're looking for it, it's also a nice metaphor for the War of the Sexes they were all in the midst of), but it's mostly funny because we've already met Harry and Helen, and in the hands of Dowdy and Sarah, they are as combustible a couple as you're likely to meet. And yet the two of them broke my heart every night when they sang "Drive," and you could hear a pin drop in the theatre during the big pause before the last note, all full of regret and resignation. The audience really understood the song's central metaphor. And clearly Harry and Helen belong together – just hear how amazing they sound together! In musicals, when people belong together, they sing together; when they're perfect for each other, they harmonize. Maybe Harry and Helen are the George and Martha of Night of the Living Dead.
The other laugh we always got also comes from well-drawn character writing. If we didn't already know these characters, this awkward small talk would be far less funny...
HELEN: How long have you been with Tom?
JUDY: Since our last year of high school. Two years.
HELEN: That’s nice…high school sweethearts.
JUDY: And you and Mr. Cooper?
HELEN: (a beat)…Do you live around here?
Our ticket sales weren't what we had hoped because of competition from the baseball playoffs and the World Series (Damn your excellence, Cardinals!), but the show still sold surprisingly well, all things considered, even on game nights. My friend and fellow New Liner Aaron Allen told me that now his two favorite New Line shows ever are Hair and Night of the Living Dead. That's pretty cool.
We're so grateful to Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith for trusting us with their work. We video recorded the show for them so they could see it. After they watched it I got this message from Stephen: “I was very proud of your production. It was very strong and very powerful. The direction and performances were amazingly strong, and the new orchestrations are amazing! Thank you sooooooo much for taking this show on and doing such a superb job of it. So many of the moments left us breathless. We are eternally grateful for your exemplary and detailed work on the piece. The moments of silence were breathtaking. The last 10 minutes were unbearable. You had a great design support team. It was so great to see it as I dreamed it onstage.” Giant sigh of relief.
The way our audiences and the local reviewers embraced this show is all the proof you'll ever need that St. Louis is a kick-ass musical theatre town, but also that there is an audience here who really wants to go on an adventure when they go to the theatre, who wants a roller coaster ride, an audience that loves The Wild Party, Love Kills, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, and Night of the Living Dead.
The critics used words like stunning, powerful, frightening, terrifying, compelling, intense, creepy, must-see, chilling, haunting, unexpected, real, daring, entertaining, harrowing, dramatic, taut, intriguing, gritty, and riveting. I think they liked it.
We're so lucky we get to do this thing we do, and every single person who plops down their twenty is helping us do it. Sometimes I'll be sitting in the back of the house watching a performance and it'll hit me, how weird it is – we pretend to be other people and act out a story, and people pay us money to watch that happen. I mean, I know why we need theatre, why we need storytelling, but it does seem objectively very strange and so ancient, I guess. Then I think of Sondheim's "Invocation to the Gods," and I know I fully believe that theatre has magical properties. My rational side also knows that humans are evolved to best take in information through narrative.
I always remember this wonderful quote from Ben Kingsley: "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it's all about them, when in reality it's all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you." And it is ancient.
We have the best audience a weirdo alternative theatre company could ask for. Seriously. I hope we serve them well. St. Louis rocks.
Long Live the Musical!