No Other Path, No Other Way

I've always been uncomfortable with awards. I hate the idea of competition in art. The dozens of theatre companies in St. Louis are not in competition with each other. Someone can see a New Line show one weekend and a HotCity show the next weekend. It's always bothered me when local theatre companies claim to be the "best" or "premier" something-or-other. It's both nonsensical (who's to say who's "best" and by whose standard?) and it's sort of uncool too, explicitly saying you're better than the rest of us...

But awards kind of do the same thing. You're the best, so you're not.

In my experience, the companies that do really exceptional work don't have to tell us they're exceptional; the work, the audiences, and the reviews speak for themselves.

Full disclosure: During the years when St. Louis had the Kevin Kline Awards, and now with the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, New Line has been nominated for multiple awards every year, but none of us ever won anything. But that's more than fine with me. We often joked that winning anything would ruin our reputation as "the bad boy of musical theatre."

Our proud losing streak was broken this week when Rob Lippert won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for his lighting for Night of the Living Dead. Thanks for ruining everything, Rob! The rest of us who were nominated this year had the decency to lose again!

But also that night, the Theater Circle presented me with a special award for New Line's body of work over the past twenty-three seasons. As always, it made a little uncomfortable, but at least in this case, it wasn't about "winning" or competition; it was just a really nice compliment, an acknowledgement of our longevity and the fascinating, alternative work New Line has become known for.

My folks came to see me accept the award, and to my surprise, so did my high school drama teacher, Judy Rethwisch, who set me on my current path more than any other single person.

Lynn Venhaus of the Belleveille News-Democrat, introduced me (with text written by Judith Newmark):
Spend a few years on our side of the lights, and gradually you're bound to notice something: Point of view. You learn what kinds of material, performances and style different theaters cultivate. In time you may conclude that different theaters, like different actors or singers, have their own voices.

Since 1991, when it was founded by artistic director Scott Miller, New Line Theatre has developed one of the clearest, most distinctive voices we have heard. You know a New Line show from the minute you walk into whatever intimate room it's making its current home.

That voice will be socially aware, and it will be politically to the left. It will be musical, and there's a fair chance it will be music from a show you've never seen, or possibly heard of, before.

On the other hand, it will probably feature performers you recognize, members of New Line's informal repertory company. It won't offer much in the way of eye candy, but it will probably boast a stripped-down, ripped-stocking style that has its own louche charm.

Above all, it will be smart.

Sometimes people love New Line's shows. Sometimes they find them offensive. Occasionally they even may shrug. But no matter how the audience reacts, Scott Miller has built a theater with an unmistakable voice of its own. That's something to cherish, and, for us, to honor. We are happy to present Scott with a special Theater Circle award for New Line's body of work.

And here's what I said when I accepted the award:
Literally since before I can remember I was in love with musical theatre. They tell me when I was four they took me to see The Sound of Music and I sang out loud during the entire film. I would’ve been really angry if I was in that audience.

All I’ve ever wanted to do my whole life – literally my whole life – is make musicals. But you cannot do that alone. And I’ve realized over the years that all my crazy ideas, and all the bizarre shows I pick, and all the adventures I want to go on, don’t really matter unless I have really talented, smart, and really fearless artists working with me – actors, musicians, designers, tech people, everybody. New Line is what it is because of the people who work with us, and I’m really grateful to everybody who’s worked with us over the years.

And I want to make sure everyone remembers that St. Louis is an amazing theatre town. And I also want to make the point out that our art form, the American musical theatre, has never been this exciting, or vigorous, or varied, or surprising, and I’m incredibly thrilled that I get to work in it every day. So thank you very much.

And I really meant all of that. New Line may be guided by my ideas, but the cool work only happens when a whole bunch of theatre artists buy into my ideas and go on the adventure with me.

It was particularly nice to receive this award during our sold-out run of Rent, because this show embodies one of the things New Line does really well, giving audiences a fresh look at a show they thought they already knew. People who've seen Rent done the traditional way twenty times still love our production, and so do the people who've never seen Rent, and to our great surprise, so do the people who've seen Rent before but didn't like it. Until now.

Awards mean very little to me (other than discomfort). Audiences are what matter to me. But this award was a little different. It was about New Line's contribution to the artistic life of our city. And that's pretty cool. And the award came from the local reviewers, who've all seen our work over time, who all write very intelligently about our work, who all really know our body of work.

It makes me uncomfortable when people come up to me after shows and praise me personally. I love it when people come up and gush about our work. It's not me who makes that magic onstage – I'm just the shepherd. So getting this award for New Line's "body of work" honors not just me, but all the New Liners.

As it should be.

The rest of the Rent run is sold-out, and then we get one week off before Hands on a Hardbody rehearsals start. No rest for the fearless.

Long Live the Musical!