Sometimes people ask why New Line doesn't have a dramaturg. The answer is that research and analysis are among my favorite parts of the job of directing. And because pretty much my whole waking life is about my work, I don't need any help with dramaturgy.
Back in 1999, when we were working on Floyd Collins, a few of us took an amazing trip. Troy Schnider, who was playing Floyd, my co-director Alison, and I drove to Cave City, Kentucky. We were all in love with this beautiful show, but we wanted to really understand that time and place.
And we wanted to see that cave.
So during our rehearsal process, we drove to Kentucky. Our first stop was the Floyd Collins Museum, more kitschy than thrilling, but the lady who ran the place was really nice and she told us where the cave is in which Floyd had been trapped way back in 1925 (which is what the entire show's about), and where his gravestone is. We drove further down the road and found a small sign by the side that said “Sand Cave,” so we parked. There were no arrows, no map, no directions.
We started down this dirt path on foot, and after a few wrong turns, we finally found it – Floyd Collins’ Sand Cave. The actual place where Floyd was trapped and died, where people had argued over rescue theories, where thousands of gawkers and onlookers had assembled seventy-four years before, creating America's first media circus. We found the tiny opening to the cave through which Floyd had squeezed. And I do mean tiny. It was hard to imagine an adult man squeezing through there – and head-first! It really changed how all of us felt about the show's opening sequence, in which we see Floyd descend into the cave. Now we understood it on a whole different level.
Also, the entrance to the cave was in this natural fishbowl, so that all the gawkers and press were literally surrounding Floyd's family and friends from above, like an arena. We could just imagine how scary that must've been when the crowd grew to large numbers.
It was totally overwhelming emotionally. I couldn’t believe we were there. Floyd had died here. We always knew that this story we were working on was true, but now it was suddenly so real. (When we got back Monday night for rehearsal, our scenic painter Karl had pained a backdrop for us that looked exactly like the view from the opening of Floyd's cave. I mean, exactly. It was kinda creepy.)
After imagining all the events of the show on the landscape around the cave opening, where the vendors must've been, where the Feds had put their tent up, all that, we returned to our car. We drove up the road further to find Floyd’s grave, and an elderly couple who had been driving by stopped when they saw us in the graveyard. The man had been a cave guide many years before and he had helped carry Floyd’s coffin when they had moved it to that cemetery. They told us so many great stories and then told us how to find the unmarked Crystal Cave, which Floyd had opened to the public before his death in 1925.
I had found Crystal Cave and I screamed myself hoarse running back up to them. The entrance was sealed off with a big iron door, but when Troy pushed on the door, it opened, and to our great surprise we were able to walk inside the first chamber of Floyd’s cave, to stand on the floor he had smoothed, to breathe the air he had once breathed. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
And the next time Troy as Floyd sang these words about preparing a cave for the public, they meant a whole lot more to him –
Time to git to work,
git to work.
Comin' back with Homer and all the others;
Git a cavin' banker
to front us the money.
Move the rocks,
an' make some trails,
an' smooth the floors,
build the stairs.
An' set up some big signs out on the road!
There's a ticket office,
an' a curio shop,
an' refreshment stand
open seven days a week!
From then on, the show was different for us, as if we were telling the story of someone we knew and it was important to get it right. Troy had already been doing a great job but now he reached deeper depths and richer emotions. And after struggling with the show's many challenges, Alison and I were reminded of the real people behind this story, the real despair, the real grief, the real love.
Research is awesome.
Later on in 2007, we were working on Grease, which I had already directed twice before, but this time I dove into my research and learned so much more than I had the other two times. It was the first time I ever created a "source rock" mix CD for our New Line actors – in this case, a collection of the actual 1950s songs that were the obvious (or probable) models for the songs in Grease.
"Eddie My Love." Same beat, same chord progressions, different melody.
I've also made "source rock" CDs for the casts of Return to the Forbidden Planet and High Fidelity (more on that in a bit). It's really helpful when we're trying to capture an authentic historical sound.
I also found on Ebay a copy of the book club edition of the Grease script from the early seventies, and reading through it, I discovered the official licensed version of the show that everyone produces has been substantially changed. There are 46 obscenities and other vulgarities that have been cut from the script. I was delighted to discover this original script, but it was also depressing to see how much the licensing agents had cut the balls off of my favorite show. So I made a chart for the actors of all the changes, so we could put the balls back on Grease.
One potent example: at the end of the show right before the finale, Danny says to Sandy, "Hey, I still got my ring! I guess you're still kinda mad at me, huh?" In the standard rental version, Sandy replies, "Nah, the hell with it." In the original script, Sandy says, "Nah, fuck it." That's a different Sandy. And I like the original a lot more.
But then my research got even cooler. I had also found out that our choreographer Robin's dad Skip had been an honest-to-god Greaser in the late fifties. He was the closest thing I'd ever find to a real-world analog to the Burger Palace Boys. For four hours one day, we sat in BreadCo. and he told me amazing stories, about drag racing, about cruising, about running from the cops, about what they wore, what they smoked, how they spent their time, their crazy nicknames for each other.
It was an amazing crash course in Greaser-dom, and together with my "source rock" research, it convinced me, more than ever, of the authenticity of Grease, that this is not a silly, shallow show about nostalgia, that this is a show that captures a moment in our social history with incredible clarity and insight into how profoundly cars, drive-ins, and rock and roll changed our culture and changed the way Americans talk and think about sex. I wrote one of my chapters about Grease as we worked on it, and to my great surprise, it turned out to be one of the longest chapters I'd written. Once I understood that the show had changed a lot over time – in subtle ways, but to great effect – I wanted to change it back. I wanted people producing Grease to understand how smart and truthful it is.
I've often found that research can fundamentally change what I think about a show. It can reveal to me things I couldn't otherwise see. It can sweep away convention and complacency.
musical vocabularies of Bruce Springsteen, The Who, The Beatles, U2, Neil Young, Beastie Boys, Coldplay, Talking Heads, Pat Benatar. It's a dramatically powerful device, but it's also such a cool trick to pull off.
Once I realized what composer Tom Kitt was doing with his score, I asked him if there were specific rock songs that inspired his Hi-Fi songs. And within a couple hours, he sent me a list of the songs (or sections of songs) that were in the back of his head while he was writing. And with that knowledge, the trick he pulled off seemed even more amazing to me. He utterly captured these various sounds, but without imitating or parodying – and our actors studied the source rock to make sure they really felt what Kitt was going after in each song.
I'll always be so grateful that he took the time to give me that information. It was so helpful.
The first time I had a really immersive research experience was the first time (of three) New Line produced Hair, in 2000. Initially baffled by the script, I stumbled upon a national online discussion group about the show. And among the members of this group were members of the original cast and other casts, the Broadway producer Michael Butler, the show's resident historian, and so many other cool people. So I bombarded them with questions and they were all so nice about explaining things. One of them actually wrote out for me a very long, detailed description of the original choreography for "Aquarius" (some footage of which is now available in documentaries), and so all three times we produced the show, we've used a slight adaptation of that original staging, and it really connects us back to that original Hair tribe (the 2009 Broadway revival did the same). Members of this group also steered me toward Allen Ginsberg's poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," which is the source for much of the lyric in the Hair song "3-5-0-0."
The ultimate result of all that help they gave me, all the reading I did, all the things I learned, was a book I wrote, called Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, collecting all of that accumulated knowledge together. I hope it helps folks unlock the magic of this show.
Most recently, as we worked on Hands on a Hardbody, we found some of the real people the show is based on, on Facebook, and we struck up some cool friendships. They were really nice about talking to us about the contest and the culture of that time and place. And that helped us immensely.
I love research. While we rehearse a show, I only read books that relate to the show, usually history books that help me understand the cultural and political zeitgeist. Right now, as we get ready to start work on Bonnie & Clyde, I'm reading two very cool books – Go Down Together, a very detailed account of their year-and-a-half murder and crime spree, and Public Enemies, a book about the creation of the FBI, and the regional crime spree of 1933-1934, of which Bonnie and Clyde were a part.
The more we understand the world of our story, the better we'll tell that story, the more interesting, more truthful choices we'll make, the more honest and organic the acting will seem.
More than that though, the more I read, the more I come to understand how much our time is like Bonnie and Clyde's time, especially economically, and also in terms of our own fight today against the prohibition of pot, and how that shapes our perception of law enforcement. Maybe today, social media is the steam valve that keeps those left behind from rising up and violently rejecting all our institutions like Bonnie and Clyde did. Or maybe it's not – it seems we hear of another shooting every week!
And the more I understand all this, the more the actors understand all this, the more the audience will understand, just by watching our actors living truthfully in this fully realized imaginary world.
That's why research matters. It helps get you to the truth. And the truth is why we tell stories. And why I direct musical theatre.
Long Live the Musical!