When I Drive

This is a weird time in our process for me.

We've blocked all of Act I, and I've got a good start in figuring out Act II, having already solved several of the tougher spots.

But what's hard for me right now is that I don't have any real feedback on my work, and I won't get any for a while. We're taking the show is a fairly different direction (at least, in its staging), so I have nothing to measure my ideas against. I've done a lot of very expressionistic staging, and I think I'm on the right path, but most of it is the kind of staging that won't really look right until it's under lights, on a set, in costume, with fully developed characters from the actors. And we're not gonna get any of that for a while yet.

I remember when Alison and I directed The Wild Party, the show's unusual, presentational form and its almost continuous music (I think I'd called it a jazz-rock opera) led me to staging that was essentially very expressionistic choreography for 90% of the show. Maybe ten minutes of the show was staged naturalistically.

It was scary at the time, because I hadn't seen the original at all, and had seen only a college production on video, and our actors really didn't see where we were going. So I had no concrete guidance as to what I was doing, just instinct. But it ended up being one of the coolest productions we've ever done. It's taken me a while to acknowledge it (perhaps for fear of the trap of hubris?), but my instincts are pretty good at this point. They'd better be, after all these years.

The other problem with shows like this is that doing this kind of staging in a rehearsal hall inevitably looks lame. When we were blocking Rent last season, I used a staging device several times during the show of the ensemble just walking back and forth all the way upstage behind the action. We nicknamed it "the foot traffic." The actors hated it because they felt like idiots in the rehearsal hall walking back and forth, but on Rob's gorgeous urban set and under his subtle lighting, they weren't just walking back and forth; they were walking the streets of New York. There was an active city behind the leads. In production, it changed the show subtly from being about eight fucked up kids to being about the community, partly because the community was so present, even when they weren't the focus of the scene.

But I did have one ace up my sleeve during both Wild Party and Rent – I had already directed Hair three times. And there's no musical I've ever encountered quite as strange. Luckily, I met folks from the original Broadway production online, and they told me just to trust it. So I did. And it worked. And opening night, we finally understood how and why Hair affects an audience so powerfully. So ever since Hair, I know that if I trust the show, it will take us where we need to go.

Even if I don't feel confident, even if I am in doubt, the text and music will lead us. Plus, I've developed a strong visual language over the years from working on so many unconventional shows. I've learned the primal power of circles, the honesty of a straight line across the front of the stage, the power of an actor turning his back on the audience, the power of up-right, the power of using film language onstage, the audience's ability to follow any story, with or without naturalistic sets, as long as the actors fully believe in their world.

Now, working on Bonnie & Clyde, I do feel a little nervous, but I also know intellectually that I have this. Not only am I good at this kind of anti-R&H musical, but so are all our New Line veterans. We know how to do theatre that's pretty far out of the mainstream but still totally accessible to our audiences. I think one of the show's problems in New York may have been that they didn't realize just how far out of the mainstream Bonnie & Clyde 2.0 had gotten in rewrites.

As I've staged the first act and thought about Act II, I realize part of what I'm doing with the big songs is making them into Busby Berkeley numbers that have gone wrong, that have been beaten up by the Depression. I'm doing to the musical theatre forms of the time what the times did to the people, I'm using Berkeley's language to some extent, but distorted, heavy, angry, fucked up. I'm using the Charleston in the opening to give us the giddy fun of Hollywood in Bonnie's fantasy, and then I'm using it again to open Act II in "Made in America," but now it's heavy and ugly and angry. It makes sense intellectually but will it work onstage? We'll find out...

I consciously waited to work hardcore on Act II staging until after we had put Act I up on its feet, to see if things worked the way I expected, to see if any of my ideas seemed obviously wrong. So far, nothing seems terribly wrong-headed.

The good news is that every actor, veterans and new folks alike, is being super-cooperative and they all take my direction without ever looking at me like I'm crazy. I don't mind if they think it, but it's disconcerting when they show it...

I think the pictures in my head are going to match our show pretty closely. And even though it's really early, the acting is already really interesting. Our actors have clearly been working hard. At the next rehearsal, we run all of Act I, so that'll give me my best idea yet what we've got, but I still won't really be able to see it. That's just the nature of the beast.

All this used to bother me, but not anymore. I know now that if I stay on the path, if I trust the material, if I make the best choices I can, we'll end up with a really wonderful show. After twenty-three years of New Line, I know our process works and our artists are top-notch.

The control freak is me has weakened over the years, so it gets easier and easier to say to myself, The destination will take care of itself; just focus on the journey.

We're having such fun with this show, and I can't wait to share it with our audience.

Long Live the Musical!