Not long ago I did a blog post about fifteen wonderful shows that New Line has produced that I wish more companies would produce. (You can add Night of the Living Dead to that list now.) Most of the shows on that list are relatively recent shows, but there are also quite a few older musicals that I'd love to produce – in most cases, shows that were not made to be New Line shows but that could be shrunk down and more focused on their dark, interesting content.
We've done it before. We did Camelot in 1998 in the 150-seat St. Marcus Theatre, as just an intimate story about the political ramifications of a tragic love triangle. We produced Man of La Mancha, which really was a New Line-type show originally though it's been commercialized and dumbed down over the years. We returned Sweeney Todd to Sondheim's preferred chamber musical scale. And we've done shows that everyone thinks of as mainstream even though they were really very New Liney in their original productions, like Grease and The Fantasticks.
But there are still a number of shows I really want to figure out how to translate into our language, style, and scale, shows whose original scale is old-school Broadway but whose content is full-out New Line.
Anything Goes was the first Broadway musical I ever got to be in (not on Broadway, mind you, just the Affton High School stage), my freshman year in high school. I was the bishop who gets arrested in the first scene, and then I was in the tap chorus. I fell in love with the show, with its smartass lyrics, its jazzy, romantic, slangy songs, its wacky, Marx Brothers style anarchy, and its sly social satire about Americans making celebrities out of criminals, and about religion becoming show biz. In many ways, it's a lot like Cry-Baby – high-energy, fast-paced, darkly satirical, Fourth Wall-busting, and yet also strangely sincere and honest emotionally. And the score is a catalog of Cole Porter hits, many of which are still really funny all these years later, and his music still sounds sophisticated and original. I might even go so far as to say that Anything Goes is a masterpiece of early musical comedy. People won't think Anything Goes is a New Line show until we do it, and then it'll be really obvious. Same thing happened with The Fantasticks.
Pal Joey is the darkest, most R-rated of the classic musical comedies, so of course I'm drawn to it. The story is about a mediocre nightclub performer who serially uses women. Early in the show, he stumbles into being a rich woman's kept man, while he's also wooing a Good Girl. Lots of sexual metaphors later, all hell breaks loose, he loses everything, and as the final curtain falls, he goes off after his next "mouse." Richard Rodgers said about the story, “They were all bad people. Except the girl. And she was stupid.” Critic Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Herald-Tribune that Pal Joey was “one of the shrewdest, toughest, and in a way most literate books ever written for musical comedy.” In the New York Post, Richard Watts said the show was “revolutionary in its toughness and scorn for musical comedy sentimentality. To tell the truth, it shocked people because it took as its central figures a kept man and rich woman who kept him, and it didn’t molest him with moral disapproval.” As you can see, it's exactly my kind of show. But I hesitate because as much as I like the score, it's very old-fashioned. I'm just not sure how well it would connect with a contemporary audience. Maybe they would just hear it as a "period" score, and accept it as such. I'm not sure. I don't know why I worry about this score, but not so much about Anything Goes.
Zorbá is a Kander & Ebb concept musical, based on the famous novel and film Zorbá the Greek. It's a story about a young intellectual who is taught how to embrace life by the loud, brash, folk philosopher Zorbá. The message of the show, at least as I read it, is that life is both good and bad, easy and hard, joyful and sad; and you can't only embrace the good part. You have to fully embrace all of life, if you want to live fully. I love that idea. The score is amazing – imagine Chicago and Cabaret, in Greece – and it's got one of those world-famous vamps that open both Chicago and Cabaret. It's a wonderful show, cynical and big-hearted at the same time, everything I think theatre should be, deep, funny, joyful, sad, exuberant, insightful. Though the original cast was much larger than we can use, the style of the show is very much like the work we do, very minimalist, very Brechtian, very impressionistic; in fact, now that I think about, a lot like the way we staged Evita. I wasn't conscious of using Zorbá as a model, but maybe I was. We will do this show.
1776 is one of my favorite shows ever, and I'd kill to work on it, but not until we're back in a blackbox theatre again. I want to set up the audience on three sides of the Congress, literally just a foot or so from the playing space. I was even toying with the idea of letting audience sit in empty chairs in the Congress, but I think that could cause us problems we don't need. It has to be a bigger cast than we usual hire, but I would deal with it if I could do this show. For me, this show is about strong, complex, honest acting, above all else, but it also needs to be passionate and rowdy and angry. These men have to be real and the stakes have to be really high. One of these days...
Little Me is sort of one of those big, old-fashioned musical comedies, but it's also kind of subversive and kind of meta. We'd have to shrink it down considerably for New Line, but it's one of the funniest shows I've ever seen and I'd love to play for a few months in this world. The music is by Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, Will Rogers Follies, Barnum, I Love My Wife, The Life, City of Angels) at his finest and funniest, and the book is by Neil Simon. It's an outrageous, fake autobiography (the source novel is from the author of Auntie Mame), about a woman who marries a series of seven men, all of whom die and leave her money. The catch is that all seven men are played by one actor – Sid Caesar originally, Donald O'Connor when I saw it at the Muny. It's a brilliant, wacky, deliciously subversive show, but it's also really entertaining, high-energy, lots of jokes, several big dance numbers. And the male lead is just made for Zak Farmer.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying will always be one of my favorite musicals ever. It's one of the nastiest satires the musical stage has seen, just as funny as Urinetown, but a lot meaner. Frank Loesser's amazingly original score is very cool jazz, both quirky and muscular, and it's one of the few theatre scores in which the music itself is often really funny. Originally, the show was done visually as a cartoon, but since it's set in 1961, I want to give it an even darker tint and make it look and feel more like Mad Men. Rather than a subversive cartoon, I want to make it a Brechtian social satire. I've thought about this since the first year Mad Men was on, and I really think the script and score would work beautifully this way.
Promises, Promises is another of my all-time favorite musicals. The score by the genius Burt Bacharach and Hal David is electrifying, and it sounds unlike any other theatre score ever written – gorgeous, jumpy, smartass, vulgar, aching, urban, conflicted, complicated. Based on the very dark film The Apartment, the show tells us the story of junior executive Chuck who loans his apartment key to his bosses for their affairs, in hopes of moving up the corporate ladder. Finally he meets the girl of his dreams but his boss is already taking her to Chuck's apartment on a weekly basis. The script by Neil Simon breaks the Fourth Wall in such an original way, with Chuck narrating the story. Like High Fidelity, Promises, Promises is a very sad, serious story that has a lot of laughs, full of moral ambiguity and the complexity of human emotion. I think this show is a genuine masterpiece. It was also a pretty big show on Broadway, and I still haven't figured out how to shrink it without losing anything. We will do this show, no doubt in my mind.
Mack & Mabel is such a great, complicated show. It's Jerry Herman's masterpiece, about the troubled relationship between genius early filmmaker Mack Sennett and his star Mabel Normand. It's every bit an old-school Jerry Herman musical, like Herman's Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage aux Folles. But it's also as emotionally dark and dense as Sondheim's Follies. It's got some flaws, but that's never stopped us. It's a really beautifully crafted, sophisticated, adult piece of musical theatre. Again, the original was a big show, but beyond that, there are also a bunch of tap dance numbers. We don't shy away from shows with dance (The Wild Party, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Urinetown, Cry-Baby), but tap dance is something else again.
To be honest, I was afraid of doing The Wild Party for years, until one year, I just wasn't anymore. That'll probably happen with Mack & Mabel.
Finian's Rainbow is another show that's a totally old-fashioned, mid-century musical, but it's also biting social commentary and pointed political satire. It tackles both race and wealth inequality. And it doesn't just tackle race; it jumps headfirst into it. It's hilarious, it's subversive, it's confrontational, it's political, it's everything I dream about in a musical. But it's also really large, and in this show, the Community is such a central character – how do you tell the story without them? It's the same reason I don't know how to do Ragtime, as much as I would love to. And there are essentially two parallel stories, so there are a lot of characters, including a racist Senator who gets accidentally turned black by an ill-aimed wish. In the original, they used blackface on a white actor; for a recent revival, they cast the role with two actors, so no one had to wear blackface...
Follies is a masterwork on a level all its own, truly one of the Great American Muscials. I've now been able to see about an hour of the original production on home movies, and I saw the show live on Broadway in 2001 and 2011, and also in London in 2002. All three productions were really wonderful, but from everyting I know, this last New York revival is really close to what the original was like, and it was extraordinary, often electrifying. It was a masterful production with a once-in-a-lifetime cast. It's a hard show to get right – the script and score are insanely complex and nuanced – but I think we could do it. I think I really understand exactly what makes this beautiful creature tick. But here's the thing: we can only do it in a proscenium house (preferably an old one) and with a full orchestra. You can't do Follies in miniature. Someday, I'm gonna figure out a way to get those two things. I hear someone may be buying the Orpheum Theatre downtown. That would be a cool place to do Follies... hint, hint...
(If you're a big Follies fan, check out this amazing article about the Follies film that was never made...)
No idea when we might do any of these shows, or when I might figure out how to shrink them or re-imagine them without doing them any damage, hopefully revealing something new and interesting about them, maybe something that's gotten lost over the years. Some of these shows just might not be built for that, but I'm betting some of them are.
Okay, I'll tell you a secret, but don't tell anyone... I think we may do one of the shows on this list next season. I haven't decided for sure, but I think I'm ready to tackle it. Stay tuned...
Long Live the Musical!