Information Age of Hysteria

I see the whole world through the lens of musical theatre. But you already knew that.

And if you're my Facebook friend, you know that my second great love is politics, the way we decide collectively how to live together. I think I love politics so much because it's really just human interaction in macro – and because it's marco, it's easier to observe and understand. And mock. And of course, as someone who's chosen to spend my life as a storyteller – and relentless mocker – understanding human interaction is part of my job. A big part.

We're at this profound pivot point in both the evolution of the musical theatre and the cultural history of our country. But change is scary and confusing for a lot of people. Combine all that with the dawning of the Information Age, which has served the musical theatre mightily and also made our politics far more toxic and fucked up, and our media landscape a (temporary, I think) Wild West.

All these things are coming together at this moment in our history in response to the partly real and partly imagined failure of all our institutions – government, religion, family, education, justice, journalism, the social safety net. So many New Line shows in the last few years have been about those failures, including Bonnie & Clyde, Hands on a Hardbody, Rent, Night of the Living Dead, Passing Strange, bare, Cry-Baby, and of course both our next two shows, Jerry Springer the Opera and The Threepenny Opera.

It's not that hard, if you squint, to see parallels between our political divide and our musical theatre divide. In politics, Republicans yearn for a return to the 1950s, while Democrats want to finish the work of the 60s (which was about finishing the work of the New Deal in the 30s). With musical theatre, some folks want to stay back in the Rodgers & Hammerstein era, where half of every score was foxtrots; while other fans (like me) are bored with those shows from 60 and 70 years ago, and we want our art form to keep moving forward, to keep surprising us, to continue the wild and wonderful experiments of the 60s and early 70s (which followed from the experiments of the 30s), so our art form will keep getting better and stronger and deeper and nearer and simpler and freer and richer and clearer...

Sorry 'bout that.

I honestly can't fathom anyone still preferring the now quaintly irrelevant Carousel to the richness and immense artistry of Floyd Collins or Lippa's Wild Party or Next to Normal or High Fidelity. To me, that would be like preferring Dynasty to Dexter. Who would choose the less interesting, the less exciting, the less relevant, the less surprising? But I also can't fathom anyone trying to keep Americans from voting or keep women from making their own healthcare choices. Who would prefer anything about the 1950s to today's amazing, fast-changing world?

The answer is some people fear change and others love change. Some find it impossible to change position on any topic, and others embrace that as part of the adventure of life. My own greatest thrill in life is discovering a cool new musical I didn't know about before, especially if it's a show we'd want to produce and it's a show we can produce...

As much as I once enjoyed Rodgers & Hammerstein shows (and I did), seeing those shows over and over has made me hate them. No, that's too strong a word. I don't hate them; I just don't see any value in them today. Their music is dated, their morality is dated, their theatrical devices are dated, their fake naturalism is dated, pretty much everything about them is dated. So why keep bringing them back? Partly just the comfort of the familiar, for the more risk-averse theatre-goers.

And let's be clear, I'm not saying never produce older shows. I'm saying only produce the very best of the older shows and only once in a while. We don't have to ignore the past, but we also don't have to wallow in it.

This summer, I was at the Muny and ran into Denny Reagan, the Muny's President. I told him how wonderful it was to have a full summer of Muny with no Rodgers & Hammerstein to be found anywhere! He smiled and told me that, as much as I may like that, the box office always does better with Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. Which, I have to admit, kinda bums me out.

Why do audiences still cling to these shows?

Well, partly because a big part of the Muny audience skews older. And partly, I have to admit, because young drama kids just starting to explore the art form for the first time probably do enjoy seeing the R&H shows they've never seen before. Once. Also, partly because these are very dangerous and difficult times, so for some people, it's reassuring to cling to the familiar and the past in the face of the chaos of massive cultural change in our world today.

And maybe that also explains our politics right now. Why would the American electorate give Congress back to the Republicans in 2014 after the ridiculous amounts of abuse the GOP committed against our country over the last six years? Maybe because Obama and the Democrats represent our fast changing country, and change is terrifying right now to many people; so they voted against change. (Also, significantly, two-thirds of voters stayed home in 2014, and we know that historically, the smaller the turnout, the better the chances are for Republicans.)

Also, because it's still so early in the Information Age, too many people still haven't learned how to distinguish good information from bad information on cable news and on the internet. So it's really easy to bamboozle them, especially when the bullshit they're being fed reinforces all their darkest fears and misconceptions. (Read the brilliant book The Republican Brain for more about all this.)

In a time when Republicans in our Congress are openly trying to take healthcare away from millions of Americans, it's hard to care whether Curly will take Laurey to the box social. In a world where nutcases Vladimir Putin and Li'l Kim in North Korea hold considerable destructive power, it's hard to care about King Mongkut and how big Siam is on a map. The R&H shows don't really address our fears and problems in 2015. In contrast, today's shows are about the breakdown of institutions because that's a topic we all grapple with every day, in the form of a crippled, dysfunctional Congress, failing schools, crumbing infrastructure, hypocritical religious leaders, broken families, a possibly permanent American underclass...

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson connects powerfully with its audience because we're going through so many of the same things today that we went through in the 1820s, and the story is told through the morality and culture and language and music of today. High Fidelity sold so well for us because there is a callousness and a selfishness in our culture today that Rob Gordon personifies, a generation (or two) of people who grew up during the incredible prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, in relative comfort and financial security, who have a more inwardly directed view of the world, seeing things only in terms of how those things affect them. Rob stands in for that selfish generation who needs to learn to grow up emotionally. Cry-Baby connected powerfully with our audience because we see that kind of bigotry and class warfare every day in today's politics, and at least in this fable, love beats fear. And rock beats the foxtrot.

Almost everyone has been one of the five main characters in bare, but how many of us have been Anna or the King? Not many. We tell stories because storytelling helps us understand ourselves and the world around us – not, you'll note, the world around our great-grandparents. At New Line, we're not interested in Flower Drum Song; we're interested in Jerry Springer the Opera.

Some musicals may comfort you. Some may give you a warm feeling in the cockles of your heart. Not ours. Our musicals will grab you by the throat and challenge you. But we think that's way cooler and way more fun. And we think it serves you and our community better. So in March, we will bring you the incredibly outrageous, gleefully offensive, and totally brilliant Jerry Springer the Opera; then in June we'll bring you one of the greatest social satires of all time, the darkly hilarious musical comedy The Threepenny Opera; and in the fall we'll open our 25th season with the new rock musical Heathers, from the creators of Bat Boy and Reefer Madness. We'll announce the rest of next season soon.

What a year ahead...

Long Live the Musical!