And that's just crazy!
Twenty-five seasons? I was barely older than that when I started the company. So yes, New Line's age is considerably freakier to me than my own age. How have we survived, when so many other companies have come and gone? Was it merely a happy coincidence of history? I was just a smartass, know-it-all, 27-year-old way back when I struck out from the community theatre I was working with, to start New Line Theatre. Our company was officially incorporated with the state just a couple weeks before Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins opened at Playwrights Horizons in New York, the kind of show that New Line's future repertoire would be built upon, and arguably one of the earliest rumblings of the new Golden Age of Musical Theatre that would soon feed New Line's artistic appetite like Seymour feeding Orin to the plant.
My timing, while accidental, was also impeccable.
As hard as it still is to run an alternative nonprofit theatre today, it was a lot harder in the early days. Today our annual budget is around $100,000. And while that's considered by most to be "shoestring," the budget for our first season was only $1,100. No, I didn't forget a zero. Yet still, we often had a three-piece band, the work we did attracted really outstanding actors, and over time we developed an aggressive, fearless style that made a virtue of minimalism. Luckily for me, that was where my taste was already heading and where the art form's most exciting writers were heading. These writers were writing non-commercial musicals, much more personal pieces of art. This was the beginning of something genuinely new for the art form. Because these musicals were not commercial, and not meant to be, the writers knew that their shows would be produced only if they were physically and conceptually minimal (i.e., inexpensive). So a whole new kind of musical theatre was born, one based on deep, personal, emotional connection rather than comforting, commercial appeal. Many of these shows had no dance and no spectacle, and they were written for small, intimate theatres. You couldn't put Floyd Collins or Songs for a New World on the Fox stage; they were built fundamentally differently.
And that was perfect for us. These new writers were writing for us. And on top of that, I started to understand that the original Broadway production of a show didn't always reflect the writers' intentions. I'll never forget reading an interview in which Sondheim said that he had always intended Sweeney Todd to be a small, scary, chamber musical. And I thought, we can do that!
shows we've produced over the last 23 years, and you'll see what I mean.
We know how to tell a good story.
Still, sometimes, standing in the theatre days before we open a show, it terrifies me. It's so all fragile. If even one show really tanks, we go deep into the red. It's only happened twice in our 23 years, but it's scary. I have to be able to pay everyone on closing night, even when ticket sales are low, and I have to keep this whole ridiculous enterprise afloat from one show to the next. But that weight on my shoulders is a price I'm willing to pay for the freedom to do the kind of work we do, the way we want to do it.
The other day, on a whim (or possibly because I was stoned), I re-sorted the list of New Line shows into chronological order by when the shows originally debuted, to get a look at how we've explored American musical theatre history, and also how the art form has changed over time. And it's kinda cool to see...
The Threepenny Opera (1928)
The Cradle Will Rock (1937)
The Nervous Set (1959)
The Fantasticks (1959)
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
Man Of La Mancha (1965)
Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris (1968)
Two Gentlemen Of Verona (1971)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
The Rocky Horror Show (1973)
The Robber Bridegroom (1974)
I Love My Wife (1977)
The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (1978)
Sweeney Todd (1979)
March Of The Falsettos (1981)
Sunday In The Park With George (1983)
Into The Woods (1987)
Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1990)
Return To The Forbidden Planet (1991)
Attempting The Absurd (1992)
Breaking Out In Harmony (1994)
Hedwig And The Angry Inch (1994)
The Ballad Of Little Mikey (1994)
Songs For A New World (1995)
In The Blood (1995)
Floyd Collins (1996)
Bat Boy (1997)
Woman With Pocketbook (1998)
A New Brain (1998)
Reefer Madness (2000)
The Wild Party (2000)
She’s Hideous (2003)
The Amberklavier (2004)
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005)
High Fidelity (2006)
Johnny Appleweed (2006)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2006)
Jerry Springer The Opera (2007)
Love Kills (2007)
Passing Strange (2008)
Next To Normal (2009)
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
Night Of The Living Dead (2012)
Hands On A Hardbody (2013)
Note the obvious pockets of creativity in the 60s and 70s, and then starting again in the mid to late 1990s. Also notice the absence of shows from the 40s and 50s – the Rodgers & Hammerstein era. Also, notice that once we get to the nineties, none of these shows follow the R&H structure anymore. Admittedly, other shows did follow the R&H rules during this period, but look at how many didn't. W'e're in a post-R&H era. Woo-hooo!
For many years, we've kept an online History of New Line, with full production details and links to the individual shows' webpages. We do this partly because we hope other adventurous companies like ours might get some cool ideas about shows to produce by seeing what we've tackled (I look at other companies' schedules all the time. That's how I found Night of the Living Dead); and to make it easy for them to find good, show-related resources once they are producing a show. But also because no other company has ever done what we're doing. (So far.) No other company is devoted solely to socially and politically relevant, alternative musical theatre. Some companies do a little of this work, some do quite a bit, but as far as we know, nobody else does only this. And we want there to be a record of our work.
A couple years ago, the local theatre reviewers created the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, and earlier this year, they honored New Line with a special award for our body of work over the past 23 years. It was a very nice compliment, a real honor coming from the people who see almost all the theatre in town (some of them, for many years), and it was way better than "winning" something "over" someone else. It was one of the few times I've spoken in public and wasn't nervous and didn't write anything down. I knew what I wanted to say:
feature story about New Line, our work, our history, and our relationship to our art form, as it continues to evolve. I could not imagine a cooler portrait of our company. American Theatre has run short items about our shows before, but never anything like this. And it's not just complimentary, it's really respectful. It takes us New Liners and our work seriously. It treats us like we have something of value to say with our work, and with our approach to contemporary musical theatre. That's very cool validation.
Soon, we launch into a new season. Our 24th season! As thrilled I was by the three shows we produced last year (Night of the Living Dead, Rent, Hands on a Hardbody), this season is every bit as cool – Bonnie & Clyde, Jerry Springer the Opera, and The Threepenny Opera. I can't wait to get to work on all three. And I think our audiences are going to be bowled over by all three. All of them are so unique and it's going to be fun unlocking them and exploring inside. We're cast the first two shows, and I am beyond thrilled by the talent we've assembled, including some amazing new folks. I still have a few weeks before we jump back into rehearsal, but I've got a lot of prep to do for Bonnie & Clyde.
Yet, as much recognition as we get, as successful as our shows are, it's always still hard to balance the budget (we had to raise ticket prices for the coming season, for the first time in six years), and we still don't have a longterm space, which is a problem we have to solve.
But all in all, things are good. The adventure continues and awesome people keep wanting to work with us. And that's pretty much all I need.
But if you wanna throw $10,000 our way, we would not object...
Till next time...
Long Live the Musical!