So I'm pretty much livin' the musical theatre dream. And most years for me are chock full of musical theatre awesomeness. 2014 was no different. There were two big surprises/honors for New Line this year. First, in March, the St Louis Theater Circle honored us with a special award for our body of work over the years.
American Theatre magazine, flew out to see New Line's Rent, and to interview me and some of the other New Liners about our company and our work. This was a really huge honor for us. American Theatre is the national magazine for serious, professional theatre artists, and though they have run quite a few short items over the years about our projects, they had never done a feature story like this.
Rob wrote, "There are edgier theatre companies in the U.S., but it would be hard to find a musicals-only company with programming as consistently provocative or as reluctant to proffer theatrical comfort food. You'll probably never see The Music Man at New Line, in other words." To read the whole article about New Line, click here.
We also launched this year the first annual New Line Theatre Show Tune Challenge, in which we challenged our friends to either sing a show tune on Facebook or donate to New Line. It was quite a success for our first time, with forty people making videos! I believe we'll do it again next November.
One other cool thing – we had been an Amazon Associate, so that when you bought items on Amazon through our links, we got a kick-back. But then Missouri changed some tax laws and we got kicked out of that program. But now Amazon has created Smile, a new program where you choose your favorite charity, then every time you visit Smile.Amazon.com and buy something, New Line once more gets a donation from most items you buy. Pretty cool, huh? So go get that set up now, so you don't forget...
In terms of performances, we started in January with the second of our Off Line Cabarets, this time New Liners Ryan Foizey and Marcy Wiegert in "What the Hell Are We Doing Here?", music directed by Justin Smolik, and directed and produced by Mike Dowdy, who runs New Line Theatre Off Line. It sold out and was really wonderful.
New Line's 24th season continued in March with our very different take on the now classic rock opera Rent. This was a show I had resisted directing for a long time; the original seemed so perfect to me and that was a real obstacle for me for years. I'm glad now that I waited. It's been almost twenty years since I had the thrill of seeing Rent for the first time on Broadway, and three years since I saw the outstanding off Broadway revival. That distance – and Rob's incredibly inventive set – allowed me to come at the story with some real freedom. At my request, Rob's set centered on a giant raised, raked "moon," and that massive set piece (16' across) really restricted what I could do in staging. And as most artists know, the more restrictions you have, the more creative you'll be. To an artist, restrictions are like steroid shots.
We cast a very young cast (our two leads were 19 and 20), and we had newcomers in eight of the show's nine leading roles. (We love giving leads to people who are new to us.) The critics and audience all went wild for our production, and many of the reviews mentioned how much we departed from the conventional staging of the show. Paul Friswold in The Riverfront Times called our show, “sharp, incisive and viscerally moving. . . a masterpiece of stagecraft, a composition as visually stunning as it is sonically powerful. . . packed with unforgettable moments.” Chris Gibson wrote in BroadwayWorld, “If you think you've seen Rent before, you really haven't.” Judith Newmark in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it “intimate and raw.” Christopher Reilly at Alive magazine called it “a powerhouse evening of theater.” Richard Green of TalkinBroadway, said it "brings stunning characters furiously to life, in all their contradictions.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote in his American Theatre article, "Miller's Rent is youthful, movingly raw, and unfailingly intimate; it doesn't smooth over the original work's odd, form-bending structure. It feels almost as if it's being made up on the spot, and that gives it a kind of immediacy it probably hasn't had much since its debut at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop." I could not be more proud of our production, and "La Vie Boheme" will never again look right to me on a long, straight table.
New Line has done a lot of crazy things over the years, but I'm not sure we ever approached the crazy that resulted in a full-sized, actual truck on our stage for Hands on a Hardbody. It was a crazy show for Amanda Green and Doug Wright to want to write (a musical based on a documentary about people standing around a truck for five days?), and it was incredibly crazy of us (well, me, really, but I'm gonna spread the crazy around) to think we could get a truck into our small, second-floor theatre. It wasn't until blocking rehearsals started that I also realized how crazy I was to think I could stage a musical around a full-sized truck.
But you know what? Rob delivered the truck (the first time I saw it on our stage, I just started laughing at the immense absurdity of what we were doing), we got a killer cast of strong actors with great voices, and I figured out that staging the show wasn't all that different from any other show. After all, a few months earlier I had staged a whole show around a 16' moon! And once again, audience and critics couldn't find enough superlatives. Mark Bretz of the Ladue News called our show "brilliant and captivating. . . exhilarating." Lynn Venhaus of the Belleville News-Democrat called it "a must-see. You might not have heard of this show, but you definitely won't forget it." Kevin Brackett from ReviewSTL called it "the surprise hit of the year. There’s something in it for everyone." Chris Gibson of BroadwayWorld called it "a fresh and invigorating experience. Go see Hands on a Hardbody now!" Jeff Ritter of The Trades called it "regional theatre gold, featuring so many of the top voices in the St. Louis theatre scene today."
The coolest part was that lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green flew out to see our production on opening night. She had also come to see us in 2008 when we were the first to produce High Fidelity after its aborted Broadway run. She loved our Hardbody, stayed for our after-party, and she said so many nice things about our show and our cast. My favorite comment of hers was "He can pretty much do anything, can't he?", referring to longtime New Liner Jeff Wright, who had played Rob in Hi-Fi and now Benny in HOHB. We also heard a story from an audience member who was sitting behind Amanda – this woman says to her friend that she'd love to come back and see the show again, if she only had another $20, and with that, Amanda turns around, hands her a twenty-dollar bill, and tells her to come back and see the show again. How awesome is that.
And almost as awesome, several of us got to be Facebook friends with some of the real-world contestants in the documentary! The real Benny Perkins was so cool about talking to Jeff Wright (who played Benny) and me, about the contest and about himself. And I think Jeff's portrayal was a lot richer because of that.
Back in 2011, I had seen Frank Wildhorn's Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway and, to my admitted surprise, loved it. Unfortunately, the critics don't like Frank's shows and they were just itching to hate this show, which they all did, which meant it closed after only 33 previews and 36 performances. Despite the reception in New York, I knew how strong it was, both book and score, and so the minute they'd let us have it, we snatched up the performance rights. And what a joy it was to work on. I fell so in love with every song in the score, and we assembled an exceptionally kick-ass cast, including newcomers in three of the four leads (as New Line often does). We came at the show pretty differently from the original. For example, the song "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" was a small, intimate, emotional scene in our production, rather than the big American Idol moment it was in the original. But both bookwriter Ivan Menchell and orchestrator-arranger John McDaniel flew in to see the show and really loved it.
Once again, the critics totally embraced our show. Judith Newmark wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "If you live in New York or London, you enjoy lots of opportunities to see new shows. . . In St. Louis, we have those opportunities as well – mostly because of New Line Theatre." Mark Bretz of the Ladue News called it "a joy ride of infectious music . . . crackling chemistry. . . an evening of engaging and thoughtful entertainment. . . buoyant, captivating." Kevin Brackett wrote in ReviewSTL, “New Line has once again seen the potential in an unappreciated show, and has given it a new and glorious life!" Chris Gibson of BroadwayWorld called it “brilliant . . .You’ll be blown away.” Richard Green of TalkinBroadway called it “a reckless kind of delight.” And Steve Allen of StageDoor St. Louis called it "a fast-paced, toe-tapping romp . . . an evening full of surprises and multiple magic moments."
We also started something new this year with Off Line, talk-backs onstage with the designers and production staff, hosted by associate artistic director Mike Dowdy, on one of our dark nights during each run. Our crowds have been small-ish the first few times, but we're going to keep doing them, so come join us this season! We've also started videotaping the talk-backs so you can see them even if you can't get to the theatre that night.
All three of our shows in 2014 were greeted as full-out artistic triumphs. New Line was the first company to produce Hardbody after its Broadway run, and we were one of the first companies to produce Bonnie & Clyde. And next fall, we'll open our 25th season with the regional premiere of the new rock musical Heathers, by the creators of Bat Boy and Reefer Madness. We can't wait.
Meanwhile, the rest of this season will include Jerry Springer the Opera in March, and the classic musical comedy satire The Threepenny Opera in June. And before that, on January 31, we'll present the third Off Line Cabaret, with Jeffrey M. Wright, Zachary Allen Farmer, and Todd Schaefer in "Shootin' the Shit," another very adult evening of cabaret. Come join us!
It's been such an amazing year, and so much more amazing is on the horizon. But we can never forget that all these things are only possible because of you. A performance isn't a performance without an audience, and a theatre company doesn't amount to shit without an audience. To everyone who comes to our shows, who donates to our company, who follows us on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, we owe you everything.
I owe everything to New Line, and New Line owes everything to the people of St. Louis. So many, many thanks, and Happy New Year!
Long Live the Musical!