Jesus, I Just Got to Win

They announced the Tony Award nominations a few days ago. Yeah, big fuckin' deal. I care less and less about that as time goes on, and as the art form moves on beyond Broadway. Once upon a time, musical theatre and Broadway were the same, but not anymore. When I was a kid, the only chance to get a real taste of new work was to watch the performances on the Tonys every summer. Today, the coolest new work in the musical theatre is being produced all over the country, much of it by New Line.

True, many of the shows we produce start life on or off Broadway, but most of them are also not successful in New York, either because they're just not commercial enough (like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or Hands on a Hardbody) or because the Broadway industry isn't flexible or open enough to understand unusual new work (like High Fidelity or Cry-Baby). I can't blame writers for wanting a Broadway production; if successful, the financial rewards can be substantial, but it's also a deadly trap.

One immediate casualty of the Tony announcement was Jason Robert Brown's new musical The Bridges of Madison County. It got four Tony nominations, but other shows got more, and Bridges didn't get nominated for Best Musical. So it has to close. It just opened February 20. It will close this month after 137 performances.

I haven't seen it, but I love the songs I've heard, and most of my theatre friends in New York think it's really wonderful. But even if it's just a solid B+, it's still a solid B+ from Jason Fucking Robert Brown. He's my generation's Sondheim. And my impression is that it's much more than a solid B+.

So I posted to New Line's Facebook page, "Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County didn't get enough Tony nominations so it has to close. Fuck the Tonys. There will be a tour of the show in 2015." And then I expanded on that on my own page: "This is why I hate awards and award shows. What would Broadway be like if producers didn't have to bow down to the Tonys, The New York Times, and tourists who don't speak English? Well, it would probably be more like the amazing, thrilling theatre going on across America every night... We'll just keep snatching up the wonderful work the tourist audiences can't appreciate and produce it here..."

Fuck yeah!

Then Jason Robert Brown posted to Facebook:
In the Unsurprising News Department, I don't love this business, you know. Whatever fantasy version of show business I thought I was getting into when I first moved to New York, well, I think that was over a long time ago, and it took me way too many years to adapt to the reality that the theater that Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim shaped and polished had been supplanted by something shinier and far less fragile. I don't know that I would have signed up for this version of Broadway, as if I ever had a choice in the matter, but what can I do? I put my hands on the keys and what comes out is this Musical Theater stuff. Can't help it.

The Bridges of Madison County is a beautiful show. I don't just mean that the songs are pretty or that the backdrop looks great, though I think both of those things are true – I mean it's a show that celebrates beauty. Beauty and passion and connection, and those are all things I believe in. Marsha said today that you're not really a writer until you know what YOUR story is, what the one story is that you're going to spend the rest of your life telling, and I think my story is about connection and passion, the yearning for them, the fighting for them, and the celebration of finding them. This is what I write. I'm so proud of it, and so proud of this show.

I don't feel unappreciated, let me assure you of that, and I also don't feel angry and I don't feel especially sad. It's hard watching my shows struggle, and I've done it every time a new show of mine opens – it's a relief to know that the struggle is over. I will miss these amazing performers and this beautiful production, but there's a new chapter ahead in this show's story; I'm looking forward to turning the page and getting to it.

But first, there are 20 more performances, and you will never hear this score sung better, or performed with more passion and connection, than by this cast and this orchestra. My best friends are in that orchestra pit, and we all got to make music together for several months. If you haven't experienced what they all can do when they are supported by a first-class production, you should go to the Schoenfeld before May 18. And if you have experienced it, you might want to go again if you can. I just think this is a very special thing we all did, and I'm looking forward to celebrating it as often as I can before we close down.

Thank you all for your wonderful notes and letters and tweets and statuses supporting the show; it has meant so much to all of us. We got a chance to put beauty into the world; the rest is just show business. What we do is that we love.

I pick good artistic heroes.

One of my New York friends posted about all this and said it was "unfortunate" for the art form. I responded, "I partially disagree. It's not unfortunate for the art form, just the commercial arm of the art form in New York City. Jason's show will have a long, healthy life in regional theatres all over the country for years to come, just like his other shows. Which is great news for the art form." She thinks Broadway is the art form; I think musical theatre is the art form.

I know I have a massive bias here, but if you just want to talk about the art form – not money, not career, not profit, just the work itself – then Broadway is only one piece of the puzzle. It's not insignificant because the "Broadway" label still helps sell tickets in St. Louis, to people who knew Broadway was once the center of American theatre and think it still is. I admit to using the "Broadway" brand in our press releases, because for some people that still matters. After all, I'm a producer as well as a director. I have to make the budget balance.

So call me a hypocrite. I'll cop to that, I guess. But Broadway only occasionally serves the art form. New Line serves the art form often. Because of New Line, High Fidelity, one of the most original, most well-crafted musicals in years, now has further life in regional theatres across the country, after its shameful molestation by both the Broadway industry and the Broadway critical establishment. The same thing is beginning to happen to Cry-Baby, which suffered a similarly ignominious fate on Broadway; and we fervently hope it will also be true of Hardbody. We redeem the shows that New York rejects. We prove that they are worthy and wonderful.

It's New York's loss. New York audiences never got to see High Fidelity or Cry-Baby done right. They never got to see how great both shows really are. St. Louis audiences did. That's how we serve the art form.

New Line produced Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World back in 1998, just three years after it made its low-profile, 12-performance, off Broadway debut in New York. Also that year we produced Bill Finn's March of the Falsettos, at that point still a little-known Playwrights Horizons project from the early 1980s. And in 1999, we produced Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins, which had run for just a few weeks at Playwrights Horizons a few years before, but never transferred to Broadway or off Broadway. Even back in the early years, New Line was seeking out exciting new work, whether or not those shows had long runs or won any awards, especially work that the commercial New York theatre industry couldn't or wouldn't understand.

Hands on a Hardbody got only three Tony nominations last year – two for actors, one for the score – and didn't win any. Maybe that makes large regional theatres think twice about producing it, but not us.

Back in 2004, the New York Times' public editor, Daniel Okrent, wrote a scathing piece about the Tony Awards, titled, "There's No Business Like Tony Awards Business." He wrote, "The awards are a real estate promotion, restricted as they are to shows put on in the 31 houses owned or controlled by the Shuberts, the Nederlanders and Jujamcyn, plus another nine thrown in by accident of geography or affinity to the idea of the Big Musical."

He also made this point:
If you ask people what awards recognize achievement in live theater, few will cite any but the Tonys. But if a play or musical doesn't appear in one of the Tony theaters, it just doesn't count. Nothing from the various Off or Off Off Broadway houses, even though they launched all but one winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in the last decade (the exception originated in a nonprofit theater in Florida); nothing from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which in most years presents the most challenging theater in New York. You could put Anton Chekhov together with George Gershwin to collaborate on a musical directed by George Abbott, but if the curtain rises in a theater on 37th Street, tough luck. Unless the theater happened to be owned by Shubert, Nederlander or Jujamcyn. Given their near stranglehold on the Broadway business, they've got the throw weight to change the boundaries.

Is that really the measure we want to use to assess the quality of work in our art form? And now lots of cities across America have created local versions of the Tonys. In St. Louis we briefly had the Kevin Kline Awards, which were mismanaged into oblivion, and now we have the more modest, less problematic St. Louis Theater Circle Awards. But why do we need awards? Why do we have to declare one show or one performance "better" than another? I've never understood that.

I will never choose a show to produce because of awards. Or reviews. We've produced too many shows over the years, to universal acclaim from critics and audiences, that got no awards in New York and earned nothing but insults from the New York critics. But who cares, as long as the show itself is great?

Not long ago, we announced New Line's upcoming 24th season: Bonnie & Clyde, Jerry Springer the Opera, and The Threepenny Opera. The only criteria in choosing these shows were whether they were worth working on for us and whether we think St. Louis area audiences ought to see them. Bonnie & Clyde got nothing but brickbats from the critics, but I saw it in New York and I know it's a strong, interesting, well-crafted piece of theatre. I know our audience will love it.

People often say to me, "Remember, it's show business." Well, no, it's not. At New Line, it's theatre. Perhaps what they do on Broadway and at the Fox is show business, but what we do at New Line is art, not capitalism. It's not a business in any conventional sense. Does any legit business operate by losing money on every project and asking people to give money to offset that loss? Only nonprofits. The government created nonprofit tax status decades ago because they understood that some things should be beyond considerations of profit, that some things are inherently valuable to society. As fundamental as storytelling has always been to human existence and happiness, surely that's something that shouldn't be subject to the whims of the "free market," any more than our healthcare should.

So why do we make these great American storytellers – Stephen Sondheim, Jason Robert Brown, Bill Finn, Andrew Lippa, Stephen Schwartz, Tom Kitt, Amanda Green, Adam Guettel, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Steve Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens – suffer the indignity of being required to make a profit and win high-profile awards? Wouldn't it be better if all we required of them was their best work?

Well, at New Line, we couldn't give two shits over whether Hands on a Hardbody or The Bridges of Madison County were nominated for Best Musical Tony Awards. We don't produce Tony Awards; we produce musical theatre.

After reading Jason's thoughts about all this on Facebook, I'm even happier that I get to work here in St. Louis, away from all that bullshit, that I get to work for audiences who are open and adventurous, that I get to work with really brilliant, fearless artists on every show. People ask me why I'm not in New York. It's because I don't want to make commercial musical theatre. I just want to make good musical theatre, whether or not it's commercial, and the most interesting work usually isn't. Which is why ticket sales account for only about half our budget.

When a show costs millions of dollars to open, and is expected to earn that all back, what happens to the art? It gets forgotten or subverted.

But not at New Line.

Watch us prove to New York that they were as dead wrong about Hands on a Hardbody as they were about High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, bare, Passing Strange, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and The Wild Party.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Read my 2012 post about the national high school musical theatre awards...