Sweet Understanding

We New Liners take our comedy seriously.

One of the disadvantages to this new Golden Age of musical theatre where we find ourselves, is that this is a massive transition in the art form (much like the massive transition in the culture at large), and many working in the musical theatre haven't yet found their way in this New World. We really are (mostly) leaving behind the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, and the 20th-century musical comedy model, for new, more interesting, more relevant forms, the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical.

But a lot of actors and a lot of directors come at neo musical comedies as if these shows are old-school, 1950s musical comedies. They're not. And what's extra hard about this problem is that these shows can still be fairly funny, even when not done all that well, so the clueless don't even realize what they've missed, that their productions lack all the rest of what makes these such great shows, their bite, their irony, their subtext, their politics, and their very meta self-awareness. After all, these misfired productions still get laughs...

And so do babies and cats on YouTube. Is that really the only measure of theatre?

Too many directors of musicals don't even consider the writers' intentions when they stage a show. It doesn't even occur to them that a particular show may have its own unique style, tone, rules, etc., which are unlike those of any other musical. This is true of more and more musicals these days, thanks to the amazing experimentation going on in our art form today. These clueless directors don't read interviews with the writers. They don't read anything the writers have written about the show. To these folks, all funny is equal, all funny is wacky and cheap.

It's not.

There are directors and actors who will tell you that you shouldn't have to think about the writers' intentions, that everything should be right there in the script. Maybe you could make that argument about a play (although even then, I'm not sure I agree), but musicals are really complex, and it's just not possible to write down the spirit, the tone, the level of exaggeration and irony, etc. Some writers try to give us a hint. The Bat Boy writers shared with me their guiding mantra, "The height of expression, the depth of sincerity." Lyricist-bookwriter Howard Ashman wrote a really great short essay at the front of the Little Shop script, but I've seen productions where no one involved read Ashman's piece. He wrote:
Little Shop of Horrors satirizes many things: science fiction, B movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend. There will, therefore, be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy. This is a great and potentially fatal mistake. The script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so the actors should not. Instead, they should play with simplicity, honesty, and sweetness – even when events are at their most outlandish. The show’s individual “style” will evolve naturally from the words themselves and an approach to acting and singing them that is almost child-like in its sincerity and intensity. By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private B movie – not because she’s “commenting” to the audience on the silliness of her situation. Having directed the original New York production of Little Shop myself, and subsequently having seen it in many versions and even many languages, I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.

Note that this is not a campy show, though many productions treat it that way. We're not supposed to be laughing at these characters; we're supposed to be emotionally involved in their story, despite the insanity of the premise. And let's look at that last sentence one more time, because it applies to so many contemporary musicals – "When Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable." I wish they would print that in boldface at the top of every page of the script... and the scripts of Urinetown, Bat Boy, Cry-Baby, etc.

Watch Ellen Greene, the original Audrey, sing "Somewhere That's Green." No matter how silly or absurd the content gets, her acting is subtle, committed, utterly inside the character. Audrey is a real woman, and her emotions are real, even if she lives inside a really fucked-up cartoon world.

Doug Wright wrote a short note like that at the beginning of the Hands on a Hardbody script that was really helpful. He wrote in part:
Despite their colorful eccentricities and regional turns of phrase, the characters in our story are inspired by very real people. They should not be played broadly, or with an implied "wink." Rather, they should be acted with integrity, with full regard for their ardent hopes, heartbreaking foibles and core decency.

Not all writers do this for us, but it's not hard at all to find interviews, essays, and other pieces that will tell you how these writers built a show and how it should work.

So many newer musicals today are sui generis, each of them with a style and tone utterly unique to that show. In many of these cases, the only ways to fully understand what the writers intended is to see the original production (if in fact the writers liked it, which is not always the case), and/or to read what the writers say about their show. It's important to remember that the writers sometimes don't like the original production or the original director.

Here are some of the most abused shows, in my (only occasionally) humble opinion...

Like Little Shop, the characters and action of Bat Boy have to be taken totally seriously by the actors and director. Neo musical comedies are about irony, in this case the very funny juxtaposition of incredibly high stakes and powerful emotions against the fundamentally silly premise of the whole story and the rank hypocrisy of many of the characters. But for that to work, the acting has to be utterly honest and serious. Like the Bat Boy writers put it, the depth of sincerity, the height of expression. Honest and outrageous at the same time. If you're working on a well-crafted neo musical comedy, the more seriously the director and actors take the characters and story, the funnier the show gets.

Adding jokes, bits, schtick, gags, mugging, etc. to shows like these only hobbles them, and makes them half as funny as they should be. Nothing is less funny than the obvious effort to be funny.

Urinetown is similar but even more serious. Remembering the brilliant original production on Broadway, the show is incredibly funny, but it's not always funny. Many of the scenes are meant to be disturbing, scary, creepy. Again, just because a show is funny doesn't mean every second of it has to be funny. You have to follow the show, not your own agenda. Urinetown is relentlessly dark, over-serious, even condescending, and like the other shows mentioned here, the more seriously you take it, the funnier it gets.

Watch this clip from the Tonys, and see how totally straight-faced it all is, and how serious Officer Lockstock and Bobby Strong are.

There are lots of musicals that lots of directors and actors apparently don't understand. For the record... Godspell is not sketch comedy and it's not a revue; there is a through-line and character arcs. Hair is not Godspell; it is a dark Hero Myth story, not a playful romp. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a comedy and Hedwig isn't mean. You'd be astounded at the terrible wrong turns lots of musicals take in the wrong hands.

But I also want to point out that some of those directors and actors who fundamentally misunderstand contemporary musicals are working on and off Broadway. Director Walter Bobbie thought High Fidelity was a romantic musical comedy, but it's actually Rob's serious (sometimes very sad) coming-of-age story. The story is a drama (not many comedies involve abortions), even though there are a lot of laughs. Likewise, director Mark Brokaw thought Cry-Baby was an offensive comedy about mean kids, but it's actually a serious story about class and justice, again even though there are a lot of laughs. And the "bad kids" are actually our big-hearted heroes, something else Brokaw didn't understand. I can only assume he's never seen a John Waters movie.

You can't argue that this evolving form is entirely new and uncharted, since it arguably goes back to Little Shop more than thirty years ago, or at the very least, back to Bat Boy and Urinetown in the mid-1990s, but a lot of people still don't get it.

You wouldn't direct an episode of The Sopranos the same way you'd direct Saved by the Bell, but that's essentially what's happening in the musical theatre today. People are directing Bat Boy and Urinetown like they're The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees.

They're not.

There are lots of different kinds of Funny. The musical theatre writers and composers of this new Golden Age are giving us the kind of Funny that matches our times, dark, uncomfortable, weighty, ironic; but also insightful and illuminating. We don't need the kind of Funny audiences needed in the 1950s; we need a musical theatre for today's world. We need Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Cry-Baby and Jerry Springer the Opera.

And lucky for us, that's what we have. Now if we can just get those clueless types to join the rest of us in the 21st century, we can charge ahead into the undeniably exciting future of our art form...
Yesterday is done.
See the pretty countryside.
Merrily we roll along, roll along,
Following dreams.
Traveling's the fun...

Long Live the New Musical!