JD and Benny's Excellent Adventure

One of the greatest theatre experiences of my life was producing and directing High Fidelity in 2008. It's such a smart, sophisticated, and emotionally serious piece of theatre, but it was treated in New York like a cookie-cutter, romantic musical comedy – believe me, I saw it, and it was awful. As far as I know, the show's writers Amanda Green, Tom Kitt, and David Lindsay-Abaire (talk about an all-star team!) assumed their show was dead and might never be produced again. Lucky for me, they still made a cast album, and once I heard that brilliant, inventive score, my little musical theatre heart almost burst out of my chest. Also lucky for me, Tom Kitt's band has a website, so I could find Tom.

I've already blogged about the rest of the story, the joy of putting the show together, sold-out houses, repeat customers, rave reviews; and then we brought it back in 2012, and had the same experience. Because the show's just that good. Yes, we really understood its special nature, and we created two excellent productions. The material is extraordinary, and we had the great honor of showing the world that, and bringing this incredible show back to life. It's now being produced all over the country. The greatest thrill of the first production was a visit from Amanda Green, who wanted to know if the problem in New York was her show or that production. It was that production.

I bring all this up because we New Liners get to have so many wild, wonderful experiences, working on extraordinary material, sharing that material with our adventurous, engaged audiences, and sometimes getting to meet my true heroes, the writers. American Theatre magazine is running a very cool story in their current issue about New Line and our excellent adventures.

Hardbody was another one of those New Line experiences like no other. It was one of those shows that, though the cast didn't immediately understand how it would work, they trusted me and followed me wherever I took us. We were very lucky to cast our show with serious, fearless actors with fabulous voices. There was only one actor in the show who hadn't worked with us before (and that's unusual for us), so Hardbody was one of those "New Line All-Stars" shows, like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, and Night of the Living Dead.

And Amanda Green came back to see us again, and she loved our production.

Every one of us working on Hardbody came to realize how much deeper and more profound this show was than we first assumed. And then we opened, and every night our audiences were so engaged, gasping at the contest's surprises, cheering after the power anthems, audibly moaning when their favorite characters dropped off, even wiping away tears, particularly the men during "Stronger."

And then we started getting emails, notes, FB messages telling us how deeply affected our audience had been by our story, how much it meant to them, including messages from audience members who were from Texas, telling us how exactly right we got it.

We always bring our A-game, but this time it felt like we all stepped it up even more. Our scenic designer Rob Lippert sure did. He's done some cool sets for us, but this time, he gave us the truck. Without Rob agreeing to figure out and create our truck, we could not have produced this show. And he had to get it up to our second-floor theatre through single door frames. He also did us all the awesome favor of recording every step of creating the truck, on his New Line blog.

And our actors dug into these characters with such intensity. These are endlessly rich, complex characters and relationships, maybe partly because they're based on real people, but also partly because Doug Wright is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Just sayin'. So much subtlety, so much subtext, so much reality.

And at every performance, the cast and band were at their peak, so much emotion pouring out of the actors and the musicians, so much playfulness, irony, rage, despair. We don't just hire awesome actors; we hire awesome musicians too. It's not just about notes; it's also about expression.

Some directors stay for opening night, then go on to their next project, That would kill me. I have to see every performance because every performance and every audience is different. Even over our relatively short run of twelve performances, the show settles, gets richer, gets more nuanced, more detailed, more insightful.

And on that topic, I have to brag on two of our actors, members of our unofficial repertory company. This whole cast was exceptional, but these two deserve a special shout-out.

Todd Schaefer has been acting with us – and sometimes also designing and building sets – since 2001. We first cast him as Cliff in Cabaret, because he had a really nice singing voice and my gut told me he was a really serious actor, which that role needs. My gut turned out to be right (it usually is), and I realized we had found one of those actors I really needed to the do the kind of work I wanted to do. His work in Cabaret was heart-breaking.

No matter what we throw at Todd, he nails it, funny or serious, naturalistic or outrageous, tenor or bass. He went on to play the Zen-like Roger in A New Brain, then the nervous, nerdy Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Show, in which his jump into "The Time Warp" was physical comedy genius and his soulful rendition of "Once In a While" gave the show some real weight), the wacky-tragic Edgar the bat boy in Bat Boy (twice), the dramatic title roles in Sunday in the Park with George, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Man of La Mancha, the freewheeling but troubled Claude in Hair, the confident, powerful, romantic Juan Peron in Evita, the ridiculous but earnest Alvin in I Love My Wife, and now the world-weary JD Drew in Hands on a Hardbody.

Todd is a director's actor. He's open to absolutely anything. He absorbs everything I say to him, synthesizes it all, and then his characters emerge over the rehearsal period, at first just a sketch, then more and more detail, more nuance, then the subtlety and subtext. He has a very natural acting style, even in the most outrageous shows, so that the Bat Boy seems as real and human as JD Drew. He's a true virtuoso onstage, able to handle the multiple levels of reality in La Mancha, while still making Cervantes, Senior Quijana, and Don Quixote all equally real and alive; and able to go from George Seurat to Hedwig Schmidt with equal authenticity. He's a joy to work with, and I always know his performance will be wonderful and truthful and quite often, laugh-out-loud funny. (His partner Brian sometimes calls him "Dick Van Dork.")

One of the things I love about going to shows at The Rep is being able to see the same actors in different shows and different roles, to see the professional chameleon at work. And I think the same is true for our New Line audiences. I've heard many times over the years from our audiences how cool it is to see a usually comic actor take on a heavy drama (as Nick Kelly did, as Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman), and vice versa.

Jeff Wright is another of those chameleon actors, and it's always such fun watching him excavate and discover and consider his characters over the rehearsal process. He always comes up with something interesting, insightful, and most of all, totally fucking honest; and it's always exactly right in terms of style and tone. He first joined us as the cut-up, Roger, in Grease; followed by his shattering John Hinckley in Assassins (when Hinckley started to cry, alone in his basement, it was so terribly sad); the charming asshole Rob Gordon in the American regional premiere of High Fidelity, and then Rob Gordon again four years later; the lost, powerless Dan Goodman in Next to Normal; and now, the irascible, hilarious, heart-breaking, wise man, Benny Perkins in Hands on a Hardbody.

Some people said they think this was the best work Jeff's ever done.

The first time we did High Fidelity, when Amanda Green came to see it, she walked out with me at intermission and told me how much she loved Jeff in the lead role. (I waited till after the show to tell Jeff.) Then a few weeks ago, when she was back to see Hardbody, I saw her again at intermission and she said to me, "Wow, Jeff really can play anything, can't he?" (Again I waited till after the show to tell him.)

I remember the first blocking rehearsal for Grease. It was so important to me that we strip the show of the cartoon style we're all used to, and Jeff and Scott Tripp had the first dialogue scene. I made them start it over four or five times, and kept asking them to strip off the style. Eventually they did, and they got to complete, naked naturalism, and they found the gray, working-class reality of this world and these people. From there we rebuilt the original style back, angrier, uglier, more aggressive, more offensive, almost Brechtian in its anti-R&H-ism, clearly a conscious descendant of Hair, whose style is an intentional lack of (conventional) style. Jeff had never worked with me before, but he was open to anything I asked or suggested. He accepted whatever road I put us on. And he also found the honesty at the heart of the Burger Palace Boys, who after all, are based on real people.

Jeff comes at every role with the same seriousness of purpose, whether it's the creepy coward Wally in the sex farce I Love My Wife (his and Todd's scene smoking hash remains one of my all-time favorite memories), or the clueless, pathless Rob Gordon in the coming-of-age drama High Fidelity, or the tragic Dan Goodman in Next to Normal. In both Hi-Fi and N2N, Jeff had to play breakdowns, and in both shows he accessed such raw, honest emotion that tears welled up in my eyes at every performance. Sometimes it was hard for him to get through the scene it was so emotional for him. That's the kind of fearlessness that makes New Line shows so powerful.

One of Jeff's great strengths is that when I suggest something in rehearsal, that suggestions is fully integrated into his performance the next time we run it, and we're able to see if it works or not. That's such a gift for me. And there's something special about him, so that even though he only ever plays the dickheads, the audience can't ever hate his characters. The same was true of Benny in Hardbody. Because how could you hate Jeff Wright...? He fully accesses the darkness, and yet there's something about him that makes us dive in there with him.

As I often say, none of my ideas, my insights, my experiments mean anything, unless smart, skillful, fearless actors like Jeff and Todd bring those ideas to life. We're lucky that New Line has quite a few actors like that working with us. It's the only way we could do the work we do. More than any other art form, musical theatre is intrinsically collaborative. None of us can do this alone.

I'm just grateful I have people like Jeff and Todd and the rest of New Line's "repertory company" to work with...

And I'm grateful that I get to spend my life in the musical theatre of the 21st century. We're in a new Golden Age, and it's a thrilling ride...

Long Live the Musical!