Welcome to the Renaissance

I've been on something of a crusade for a while now, a crusade to end comedy abuse in our lifetime.

I find myself in an interesting spot in the theatrical space-time continuum right now, coming off the uber-dark, creepy-funny Threepenny, and thinking about its many descendants that we've produced, Chicago, Cabaret, Bat Boy, Urinetown, La Mancha, Company, Sweeney, Floyd Collins, BBAJ, and so many others, and now moving on to Heathers and American Idiot. Here in the midst of this Golden Age for the musical theatre, as the neo musical comedy evolves, I've been thinking a lot about comedy.

I recently re-watched a bootleg video of the original production of Urinetown, which I first saw from the tenth row center, right after its transfer to Broadway in 2001. And although I always think of that show as an outrageous, laugh-out-loud comedy, it's not only that. In fact, much of Urinetown isn't really funny at all; much of it is pretty horrifying, just like Threepenny. Mr. Cladwell is ridiculous, but he's also intense. The same is true with Bat Boy and Hedwig.  I saw both those original productions too. And back in the 80s, my mom and I saw the original off Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors while I was in college (with that amazing original cast!), and the same is true of that show too.

These are not old-school musical comedies. They're a much more interesting, more complex, new form, the neo musical comedy, shows that use many of the devices of old-school musical comedy, but for more serious, more ironic ends.

And yet still, many young actors and directors treat these new Golden Age shows like they're all Nunsense. These folks operate under two misconceptions. The first is that there is essentially just one kind of Funny, that Nunsense and Urinetown are fundamentally the same animal. Wrong. The second misconception is that the best way to approach comedy is to make it funny, to force it into comedy submission. Wrong again.

First, there are many kinds of Funny, even within the musical genre, each requiring its own style and tone, ranging from pure silliness (Silence!, Toxic Avenger), to farce (Something Rotten, I Love My Wife), to gentle comedy (Fiddler on the Roof, Hands on a Hardbody), to dark comedy (Bukowsical, Rocky Horror, How to Succeed), to political comedy (Cry-Baby, Passing Strange, Hedwig), to what I'll call "serious realist comedy," tackling serious, real-world issues (Chicago, BBAJ, Bat Boy, Urinetown), and of course, lots of gradations and combinations in between.

In response to the second misconception, unless the show itself sucks, the best approach to comedy is always to get out of the way, to trust the material, and not to impose your own Funny on it. Comedy requires both surprise and truth. If a show is jam-packed with sight gags and physical schtick, the truth gets lost, and it stops being a surprise real fast. (Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Casey Nicholaw!)

If a show involves you, makes you laugh and then horrifies you, then makes you laugh again, then makes you tear up, that's some confident, skillful storytelling.

Actually, that's Bat Boy.

Too many actors and directors don't understand that the key to Urinetown (and many other shows like it) is honest, straight-faced, highly intense acting and emotions, coupled with ridiculously high stakes. The more serious the actors take their characters and the story, and the higher they raise the dramatic stakes, the funnier the show gets. I'm not talking about over-acting, or melodrama, or any other phony style. That puts up a wall between the actors and audience. I'm talking about a heightened, more exaggerated physical and vocal performance, with a genuinely honest acting performance, which comes entirely from character and situation, without commentary or a wink from the actor. Intensity and honesty together are very powerful – and/or very funny. It's about connection, not disconnection.

Audiences don't want to see the actors working at being funny, begging for laughs. That kind of nonsense just gets between the audience and the story. And it's less funny.

You'll notice that most people who really love Evil Dead the Musical are usually not longtime theatre-goers. What appeals to them about the show is the anarchy and subversion of the "rules" of musicals. More experienced theatre-goers find shows like Evil Dead less funny because they know all those conventions were exploded, subverted, discarded, and reinvented back in the 60s, and then all over again in the 90s. Evil Dead and Silence! are rebelling against a musical theatre that doesn't much exist anymore. But if you don't see many musicals, you don't know that.

What was so damn funny about the original production of Urinetown was content, not performance. And the content was only that hilarious because the actors all took it so seriously, and they got out of the way. Check out the original production on YouTube, and notice how utterly straight-faced Jeff McCarthy plays Lockstock, never the slightest wink. He knew he didn't have to "help" the material. If he were mugging to the audience, if he were Being Funny, he would have destroyed the show. Effort isn't funny. The same is true of John Cullum as Cladwell. He never winks at the audience or comments on his character; he just lives fully and honestly within this dark cartoon world.

It's the world that's funny. The actors are Bud Abbott and the script and score are Lou Costello.

All that directors and actors have to do is make that world real to us. When they also try to make the performances funny, they cock-block the comedy. They make it about the performance instead of the story; and sure, that can be diverting, but it leaves the audience with nothing when the show is over. Which do you think is more fun for the audience to leave with, after seeing Urinetown, some funny faces and pratfalls, or the devastatingly funny and truthful message Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis want to share with us? Or should that be "slap us with"...?

There's so much more to Urinetown than funny.

Our art form has evolved so much in the last twenty years, more than during any other period in its history. But it often seems that many actors and directors haven't evolved with the art form. They approach neo musical comedies like they're all Damn Yankees. But musical comedy changed, grew up, in the mid-1990s, with Bat Boy and Urinetown, among other shows. Once upon a time, rock musicals used to be about the rock; today, rock musicals just use rock as their default language. Likewise, musical comedy used to be about the laughs; today, the neo musical comedy uses comedy to raise political or sociological issues.

The outrageous Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson sets up an hilarious premise – our seventh President as a moody, selfish, emo teen – to make a bigger point about Jackson's limitations and the evolving view of our Federal government in the 1800s. The equally outrageous Cry-Baby sets up this metaphorical battle between old-school musical comedy and the neo rock musical, between the "good kids" (who are really the bad guys) and the "bad kids" (who are really the good guys). Not surprisingly, considering its John Waters pedigree, Cry-Baby's humor comes from the ridiculous, but very serious, morality at the center of the story. That upside-down morality is responsible for most of the laughs in the show, and it also delivers a message through those laughs about class and justice, a message we all recognize as truthful.

The scripts and scores for these shows are incredibly well-crafted, truly well-oiled storytelling machines, lean, economical writing, with nothing in there that doesn't have to be. Try to impose your own Funny on these shows, and it's like sticking a tree branch into the spokes of a bicycle. Chances are you'll go over the handlebars. (I speak from both literal and metaphorical experience.)

So why do so many theatre artists make this fundamental mistake? After twenty years of this style, why do they still not understand it? Partly because it's a hell of a tightrope to walk. When we're working on a neo musical comedy, and New Line does a lot of them, I always tell the actors the same thing: if you think of an idea that's really funny, please discard it; but if you think of an idea that really reveals character or story, please give it a try. When we know the material is great, we should follow it, serve it, not compete with it.

Check out this scene from the original off Broadway production of Bat Boy. Despite the incredible silliness of a woman teaching a half-bat-half-boy to talk (and the extra silliness of his meteoric progress), Kaitlin Hopkins as Meredith takes the scene totally seriously. She's fully living inside the story. And Deven May, as Edgar the bat boy, also fully inhabits Edgar's reality, crazy as it may be. And because they both take it seriously, we see how much Edgar is just a sweet, innocent, easily distracted child, how much he's normal, and we connect with him here. If we don't make that connection, if the actors aren't taking the characters and story seriously, then when the story turns tragic, it's far less intense, far less powerful. I'll always remember, when we did Bat Boy in 2003 and 2006, that we'd have much of the audience crying at the end of the show, after an evening of belly laughs. Because the show is just that good, and we really understood it.

But again, a big part of why this often hilarious story so moved our audiences is that we all took it as seriously as the writers did. Though the show is a laugh-out-loud comedy, like Urinetown, it's not only that. It's also frequently scary, disturbing, sad.

Here's part of what I wrote about Bat Boy in my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals:
On Halloween 1997, Bat Boy made its world premiere at the Actors’ Gang Theatre, perhaps the only place where this show would be understood and properly nurtured. The Actors’ Gang is Los Angeles’ premier repertory theatre company, creating original works and reinterpreting classics, through the prism of The Style, a performance method derived from commedia dell’arte, from the work of the Theatre du Soleil in Paris, from vaudeville, from the political agitprop theatre of the 1930s, and from the off off Broadway movement of the 1960s, particularly the work of the Play-House of the Ridiculous. The Style is artificial and presentational, yet insists on deep truthfulness and high emotional stakes. All the authors agree today that The Style was instrumental in both the writing and the execution of Bat Boy: The Musical.

O’Keefe says, “The Actors' Gang is a hyperactive and politically committed theater company that teaches if you show an emotion, always make it a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. People pay money to see a show portray terror, rage, despair and joy, so we might as well sell it in megadoses. We were consciously trying to dig up the deepest and most volcanic emotions, the most inflammatory questions in Bat Boy – what is it like to be a scapegoat? what is it like to be loved by one parent and hated by another? What is it like to have no idea who your parents are? What is it like to have an insatiable hunger for blood?”

Director and co-author Keythe Farley developed what Flemming likes to call the “take-it-so-seriously-it's-funny-but-it-also-hurts” style of Bat Boy. Both Deven May (as Edgar) and Kaitlin Hopkins (as Meredith) were in this first production in L.A. and, together with Farley, they found the extremely sincere approach that this outrageous musical demands. Farley’s mantra throughout the development process was “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity,” a style of truthful acting that marked all the work at the Actors’ Gang – something the cast took to heart and something which guided them throughout the L.A. and New York productions. Brain Flemming says of his partner, “Keythe's major contribution to Bat Boy has gone largely unmentioned, but it was great and permanent.” Unlike musicals in which the goal is to be as silly as possible (The Producers, Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), with Bat Boy, the goal is to be as serious as possible within the context of an utterly silly universe.

To be fair, I'd call Little Shop the first neo musical comedy, way back in 1982, but as it was with Show Boat initially, outside forces conspired to keep commercial theatre from following Little Shop's lead. It really wasn't till Bat Boy and Urinetown that the new form took hold. Musicals first had gotten ironic in the 1960s, along with the rest of our culture, but in the mid-1990s, that irony got turned up to eleven, and it launched this new Golden Age.

The musical comedy has taken on a more aggressive, more activist role today, trading in the kind of socio-political commentary that used to be reserved only for musical drama. Today, the musical comedy Hairspray can take on the same issues as South Pacific, with every bit as much (or maybe more) impact.

Which brings me to Something Rotten and its (hack) director Casey Nicholaw, whose desperate, anything-for-a-laugh approach made both Rotten and The Book of Mormon less than they should have been. That much effort at trying to be funny makes everything less funny.

Something Rotten is one of Broadway's biggest hits, but before I saw it, I wasn't sure what I would think. I loved The Producers, but I saw that the night after it opened, and really, that was more about that superb original cast and the insane high energy and joy of that original Broadway production. But I was under­whelmed by The Book of Mormon. I did find much of it funny, but I found the rest not at all funny and often cliched. Plus, while it's true that most of the shows New Line produces include the word fuck and often several others like it, The Book of Mormon uses four-letter words only to shock, not because that's how these characters talk. The four-letter word (or its approximate equivalent, i.e., "scrotum maggots") is often the joke. I think that's both lazy writing and not all that funny. Maybe that was funny back when no one used four-letter words in public, but now most (or at least many) people do. So falling back on that old "shock" feels pretty boring, unless you're from Kansas and attend a megachurch.

As I've quipped more than once, The Book of Mormon is just a 50s musical comedy with Tourette's.

Still, all in all, I really enjoyed Something Rotten. About 80% of it I love, and the rest is still very good. It's very smart. It's full of self-awareness, but always coming organically out of the premise of the story. By setting up a soothsayer who can see the future but often incorrectly, the writers gave themselves a rich device for the self-awareness of contemporary musical theatre, but also lots of humor that comes from our shared culture, specially our knowledge of how much Shakespeare is part of our everyday lives.

Though I was already aware of this, it's staggering how many dozens of Shakespeare quotes and references the show goes through, almost all of them incredibly common and well-known. It's an interesting, almost subliminal statement about Shakespeare's impact on our literature and culture. And the show works hilariously against that underlying statement by making the character of Shakespeare not just a dick, but an artistically faltering dick. That's really clever and really subversive.

But I think the material is much better than its Broadway production, despite the stellar cast. Those are all strong actors, but there are few genuine, honest moments in the show, and it's not the material's fault. They play the whole thing like Mamma Mia!, no doubt at Nicholaw's insistence. This is one of those shows that would be so much cooler, richer and funnier, if it were played straight. They don't need Beauty and the Beast joke costumes for their big production number to be funny. Give the audience a little credit! The material takes care of the wacky – it doesn't need more imposed wacky. And it sure doesn't need every laugh underlined with joke costumes and joke props and joke scenery. It's like director Casey Nicholaw thinks the audience is just too dumb to get it – Shakespeare is hard! – unless he bludgeons them over the head with each gag, frantically flashing that metaphorical LAUGH sign over and over.

This show should be directed like Urinetown.

Nicholaw is a perpetrator of accidental Brechtianism. He keeps the audience from getting emotionally involved by continually slapping them with gags that come from outside the story. It's like he's terrified that if the schtick stops for more than a second, the audience might notice that he can't direct. Maybe he thinks he's just doing old-school musical comedy, but he's not. That kind of mindless distraction is not something the legendary musical comedy director George Abbott ever did. Abbott's rule was Honest, Direct, and Clear. Nicholaw doesn't seem capable of that. He substitutes reference for wit, and desperation for energy.

Sadly, Nicholaw is not alone. Don't even get me started on Walter Bobbie ruining High Fidelity or Mark Brokaw ruining Cry-Baby. Those shows were neither old-school nor musical comedies, but these directors thought they were both. C'mon, keep up, guys!

Maybe it's just going to take a while for some musical theatre artists to catch up with our fast evolving art form. The wait may be a bit painful now and then for some of us, but we'll survive, and so will these brilliant new musicals. Still and all, what a great time to be working in the musical theatre!

Long Live the Musical!