Only Way to Make a Work of Art

As I said when I accepted New Line's special award from the St. Louis Theater Circle this year, all I've ever wanted to do with my life is make musicals. But you can't do that alone.

So I want to take a moment, as the new year begins and before we go back into rehearsal, to heap some praise on three people who have made my job so much easier this past year. As you can well imagine, running a small theatre company is really hard. And directing the kind of musical theatre we produce is also really hard. So anything that can make either of those two endeavors easier is a godsend.

I have three godsends to tell you about... call them my 2014 New Line Persons of the Year.

Flashback to 2009. We were less than a week from starting rehearsals for the Shakespearean rock & roll sci-fi musical comedy Return to the Forbidden Planet, when we found out one of the actors we cast had not just dropped out, but actually had moved to Denver, without saying a word. In a mild panic, I called some of my theatre friends, including Nick Kelly, longtime New Line actor and professor of theatre at Lindenwood University, to find a replacement who could handle Shakespearean dialogue and sing three-part, doo-wop backup. Nick had just the guy – a strong tenor and a strong actor named Mike Dowdy. I was so relieved I didn't even ask Dowdy to audition for me; on Nick's recommendation, I offered Dowdy the role and he accepted. And only then did he discover he'd have two Shakespeare monologues...

Which he nailed. And he was awesome to work with.

He was wonderful in RTTFP, already so at home with our straight-faced outrageousness, so we just kept inviting him back, to appear in Spelling Bee, The Wild Party, Evita, Two Gentlemen of Verona, bare, Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Night of the Living Dead, and this past summer's Hands on a Hardbody. He's played everything from a grade school egotist to an incestuous gay theatre writer, to an aggressively creepy John Waters villain, to a romantic lead, to a stoner servant, to a damaged middle-aged husband... He completely inhabits every one of his characters and he's got this gorgeous tenor voice!

But Mike has taken a new day job, as stage manager for the Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company, which requires him to join the actors and stage managers union, which means he can't perform on New Line's stage again for a while, because New Line is non-union.

But Dowdy's other talent, I discovered, is directing. He's great at it. Even when he was in a show, he often had such smart, interesting staging ideas (quite a few of which we used); so we eventually named him New Line's Associate Artistic Director, and now he's directing all our shows with me. And we're a hell of a great team. We have very similar tastes and opinions, and he's really in tune with my process. Quite often, Dowdy and I will be standing there, watching a run-through of a show, and at exactly the same instant, we'll turn to each other with exactly the same thought. Which then always makes us laugh. And yet, after that run-through, Dowdy and I will both have lots of notes for the actors, but the two of us will never have the same note. Weird, huh?

I've been directing musicals since 1981, but my work is better if Dowdy's directing with me. I'm a pretty great problem solver, but so is Dowdy, and as The Robber Bridegroom teaches us, two heads are better than one. Especially when both heads are on the same wavelength. He's a really wonderful artistic partner.

The most recent addition to the New Line family is Jeffrey Carter, chair of the music department at Webster University, who became New Line's resident music director with Bonnie & Clyde. And it's really wonderful having Jeffrey around. I had been New Line's music director for most of our history, but I handed that job off to our excellent bandleader Justin Smolik a couple seasons ago. But then Justin got another job. When I first met Jeffrey to talk about being our music director, I immediately knew this was going to work out. Jeff and I get along really well temperamentally, we have fairly similar tastes in music and theatre, he totally has a New Line sense of humor, and he's both really great at the job and really easy-going and fun to be around.

Our Bonnie & Clyde sitzprobe rehearsal was the easiest for me that a sitzprobe has ever been, thanks entirely to Jeff.

I'm particularly glad he's in the job right now, as rehearsals for Jerry Springer the Opera approach. That show is going to be extremely challenging in a variety of ways, but the music is very hard (it really is an opera), and I could not be more thrilled that I don't have to teach it! When we held auditions for Springer, trained opera singers showed up, and Jeffrey was able to talk to them in opera-speak, which is not among my skills. I was a good music director, but I was never trained in that job. Jeffrey is a serious pro.

And he's awesome.

One of our luckiest hires lately was the one and only Rob Lippert. After our last set designer Scott Schoonover (High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, BBAJ, Bukowsical) left to take a position with Stages, we put the word out, and Rob was one of the first to respond. Not only did he have lots of experience, and some really cool set designs in his portfolio, but he's also a lighting designer; and our resident lighting design Ken Zinkl was taking "maternity leave" for our fall show, Night of the Living Dead, so Rob ended up designing both lights and the set, which he did again for Rent. So, to our great delight, Rob is now our resident scenic designer, and Rob and Ken both are our resident lighting designers.

But the real gift was that I saw on Rob's website that he had created a truck for a production of The Grapes of Wrath, and we had just been offered the American regional premiere (the first production after Broadway) of Hands on a Hardbody, which requires a full-sized, real pickup truck onstage. Though it ended up taking Rob and his crew about 400 man-hours, he delivered our truck.

And let's be clear about this – Rob gave us a real, full-sized, red pickup truck (minus the engine and most of the innards), in the middle of our set, in our second-floor theatre, which has only regular-sized doors. He literally deconstructed and reconstructed an entire Nissan pickup. He also built us a cool Nissan billboard through which you could sometimes see the band behind it.

Rob has also delivered for us a totally realistic looking, creepy old farmhouse for Night of the Living Dead; a beautiful urban landscape (and a 16' raked moon!) for Rent; and a surrealistic dreamscape for Bonnie & Clyde. I'm sure he thought I was nuts when I said to him about Rent, "I don't care what you do with the rest of the set, but in the middle, I need a giant, raked, circular platform, painted to look like the moon, and big enough to seat sixteen." But god bless him, he gave me my moon.

And the topper is that Rob is the nicest guy you'll ever meet, super smart, super dependable, incredibly creative, and so hard-working!

When we started New Line, back in 1991, I was director, music director, set designer, costume designer, graphic designer, piano player, house manager, and other assorted jobs – partly because our budget was really tiny, and partly because I'm a world-class control freak. But over the years, I've let go of all those jobs except director (and now I'm sharing that one!). And the control freak in me is okay, as long as my collaborators are people like Dowdy, Jeffrey, and Rob. We have a pretty small budget for the kind of work we do, and yet we need truly outstanding artists at the top of their game, to pull off shows like Next to Normal and Jerry Springer the Opera.

New Line and I are both very lucky that these guys have come to work with us, that the work is more important to them than the size of the paycheck, and that they give us their very best every time. New Line is known all over the country for the quality of our work, but the art can only be high quality if the artists are high quality.

And they are.

Soon another wild adventure begins. Fasten your seat belts.

Long Live the Musical!