Only by Attempting the Absurd Can You Achieve the Ridiculous

I've written nine musicals, book, music, and lyrics. All but one have been produced, and New Line has produced four of them, Attempting the Absurd (1992), Breaking Out in Harmony (1994), In the Blood (1995), and Johnny Appleweed (2006).

Now, as we approach New Line's 25th season, as I look back on New Line's work and my own life in musical theatre, I realize that the shows I wrote were my own unconscious, accidental master class in the structures, forms, and styles of the American musical theatre. By writing very different kinds of shows, I learned how all the various forms worked, by actually building them from the ground up and then directing and staging them. It's like an auto mechanic taking a car apart and putting it back together again.

I don't usually talk about my own shows a lot, partly because in retrospect I look at most of them as worthwhile exercises or experiments that I would not produce again.

Still, even though most of them will not see an audience again, I'm really glad I've written so many different kinds of shows, and that I've almost always had the luxury of audience feedback. So many talented people write musicals but never get them produced. I've been very lucky. Seeing my shows live onstage, seeing what works and doesn't, has taught me so much; and I think I can analyze and understand other people's work better because I've had the experience of writing book, music, and lyrics. On top of that, I think it makes me much more hesitant to change someone else's writing. I never insert my own lines into a show. You'd be surprised how many directors do.

I think I direct better because I was an actor in high school and college, and I understand the process and the obstacles of creating a performance; and I think I direct better because I really understand the writing process.

I recently interviewed Broadway composer-lyricist Bill Finn for my Stage Grok podcast, and a musical theatre friend later told me she never would have thought to ask the questions I asked. I think that's because I know what it is to write a show – and also because I've directed Finn's shows March of the Falsettos, A New Brain, and Spelling Bee for New Line, so I know those shows up close and personal.

So here's a brief stroll through the musicals of Scott Miller...

Affton High School, 1981
At the end of my junior year in high school, my drama teacher Judy Rethwisch declared to our theatre arts class that it sure would be nice to do a student-written show. It was like lightning had hit me. I had never even considered writing a musical before, but suddenly I was going go do it. I wrote all summer, and in August, I brought Judy my script and score (lead sheet only) for Adam's Apple, a very old-fashioned, romantic musical comedy, with a debt in equal parts to George M, Cohan, George Abbott, and Jerry Herman. She read it over and committed to producing it that fall.  The story centered on a hapless high school Everyman, who lusts for the school pump, but ultimately opts for the nice girl instead, with song titles like "The Children of Izod," "The Administrative Waddle," and "I'm Different, Unique, and My Own Person." I had written a song called "Pushers and Dealers Are People Too," but the principal made us cut it. Along the way, our hero has a falling out with his best friend Charlie, and since I hadn't yet figured out I'm gay, the friendship at the center of the story was much gayer than I or our audience understood in 1981. The show sold great, audiences love

We even made an original cast album and sold it on LP! And now it's available on CD through Amazon and streaming services.

Off-Key Musical Theatre Co., Harvard Univ., 1983
Musical was my high concept meta-musical about some college kids putting on a musical, but halfway through Act II, our hero and narrator confesses that he's been writing this show as we've been watching it, and he doesn't know how the story ends, because he's run out of ideas. So the characters have to find their own path to the finale. Brecht would have been so proud. My music was definitely more interesting for this show because I had begun to take music theory class, and in retrospect I can see that I was experimenting here with subverting traditional musical theatre conventions, experiments that would continue. (My producer enjoyed telling people she had been working on Working, then doing a musical called Musical.) By this point I had seen the original productions of Little Shop of Horrors and La Cage aux Folles, and I was moving beyond the safety of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Jerry Herman. With my next show, I would toss out linear plot altogether and obliterate the Fourth Wall.

Off-Key Musical Theatre Co., Harvard Univ., 1984
Topsiders was my musical about coming to Harvard as a freshman and the huge freak-out I had that first fall (I almost transferred). I wrote songs about binge drinking, sex, missing home, getting dumped, the last episode of M*A*S*H, cramming for finals. And I wrote an opening number modeled on the opening of Company, with lots of different voices and fragments, creating a musical tapestry. Sondheim's is better of course, but mine was pretty good. Topsiders marks the start of my romance with 1960s and 70s concept musicals. I hadn't discovered the Company cast album until '82, so this came soon after that. My models were Company, A Chorus Line, Working, Hair, and other experiments of the period. Ultimately, Topsiders was more song cycle than concept musical, but it was both; through most of the show, the characters didn't interact, but on occasion they did. The title came from my realization that the vast majority of the other students I knew at Harvard were hard-core over-achievers, they were all valedictorians in high school, and most of them had SAT scores higher than mine (and mine were pretty good). I saw for the first time that kind of scary, raw ambition in many of these fierce over-achievers. How many Harvard pre-meds does it take to change a lightbulb? Two – one to change the bulb and the other to kick the ladder out from under him. Also, during this period, I wore topsiders everywhere I went...

Affton Alumni Theatre, 1985
The Line was my Brechtian political musical drama, based on an actual 1982 case of book banning, Island Trees School District v. Pico, in which students sued the school board (including their own parents) over the removal of "objectionable" books from the school library. Eventually the kids appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. This was the first time I wrote a fundamentally serious show, and the first time I based a show on a true story. I fictionalized much of it, but I used actual quotes and actual events from the case. This was the first time I wrote music that I still find genuinely interesting. I think I was finding my musical voice as a composer, as I worked on this fourth show. But I think one of my weaknesses as a writer is in narrative structure, so basing this show on a true story helped with that.

never produced, 1986
I took a truly wonderful class in college on the history of astronomy, taught by two amazing professors, Owen Gingerich and David Latham. On the first day of class, they told us we'd have a final paper, but it could come in virtually any form, as long as they agreed to it in advance. Past projects included computer animation, paintings, poetry, so I told them I wanted to write a one-act musical for my final, eventually titled Astro Turf, and they were thrilled. So I set to work on one of the hardest projects I ever took on. I had to synthesize everything we had learned, distill it down to its essence, make it rhyme and fit to the music. That was really hard! And astronomers were going to be judging it! The show was essentially a 20-minute song cycle. Each of five influential astronomers – Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler – sang a song about their theories on motion and the heavens. I got an A. Here's a taste of the opening song, sung by Aristotle:
All bodies are capable of moving,
As my friends have seen me proving,
Either straight or around.
Air and fire tend to move straight up: it's
In a way, a lot like puppets.
Earth and water move straight down.
Each heavenly body can
Find its way, quite unrehearsed,
To the center of the universe –
That's Earth – and go around.

The primary body of ev'rything is heaven,
Made the first day of those seven,
It's both perfect and complete.
It can never be increased or diminished
Since a sphere's innately finished.
It's a sphere elite.
All things tend toward the
Center of the universe.
Great distances they all traverse,
And Earth is where they meet.

The stars, the planets,
The sun, the moon, and ev'rything,
Are fixed in space, just hovering,
On crystalline spheres.
Sure, I know my model has a few problems.
You can't expect perfection in 350 BC.
After all, you know, the world's not perfect,
But it's all I've got to work with. Q.E.D.
You can buy the piano-vocal book for Astro Turf on Amazon.

New Line Theatre, 1992
Attempting the Absurd is one of my favorite things I've ever written, a wacky story about this guy Jason, who has figured out that he's only a character in a musical and doesn't really exist, because he has "the overwhelming feeling that everything I do is controlled by someone somewhere behind a typewriter, I have only a sketchy memory of my past, and I never go to the bathroom." Of course, everyone in his life thinks he's crazy, because they think they're all real – until he meets a group of community theatre folks. Because this was the first show I wrote after figuring out I'm gay, I created Chaz (a grown-up Charlie from Adam's Apple), a gay best friend for Jason, who ends up with as solid a Happy Ending as Jason – which was pretty subversive in 1992, six years before Will & Grace. The show's title comes from a line in the show, "Only by attempting the absurd can you achieve the ridiculous." I didn't know it when I was writing it in the late 80s and early 90s, but Absurd is a textbook neo musical comedy, very traditional in its form, very subversive and very meta in its content. I literally spent years working out the central concept. I remember discussing it many late nights with my college roommate David, in 1986 at college. I had to figure out the rules of this universe I had constructed. If Jason knows he's only a character in a musical, he knows he's singing. But the characters who think they're real don't know they're singing, because they don't know they're in a musical – singing is just the language of the storytelling. When Jason breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience, the "real" characters must actually see that Fourth Wall, so they think Jason is literally talking to a wall. I also had to figure out how to resolve the central conflict – my solution was that Jason's mother would try to have him locked up, but he finally convinces everyone that he's right (and of sound mind) by producing the script to Attempting the Absurd. Conceptually, this was a big step for me, but I also wrote music for Absurd that was a definite step forward for me. This is a show I'd enjoy bringing back, maybe with some minor rewrites. Here's the Act I finale:

Yoiu can purchase the script here and the vocal selections here.

Fun Fact: In Attempting the Absurd, Chaz meets, falls in love with, and marries a guy named Danny. In the one non-musical play I've written, Head Games, Chaz and Danny are now a couple.

New Line Theatre, 1994
After Attempting the Absurd, for the first time in my life, I wanted to go back to something I'd already written, The Line, and take another stab at it. A decade later, I was a much better writer and composer. So I did some massive rewrites, cut songs, changed songs, added songs, wrote new accompaniment, and changed the town name from Strawberry Spring to the more ironic Harmony. The only fatal flaw was that Breaking Out in Harmony is a Big Show, with a student chorus and a parents chorus, and ten leads. So it was really hard to cast the show adequately in our early years, and we ended up with a mixed bag, some great performers, some weak ones, and we never had a cast the size I had written the show for. I think it was just too big a show for New Line, especially this early in our history. But it was still a really interesting experience, rewriting an old project. I learned a lot. And I came up with one of my all-time favorite characters names, a guy named Sebastian, who everybody calls Bash.

New Line Theatre, 1995
In the Blood was my attempt at a serious, Rodgers & Hammerstein-style musical romantic tragedy, though in this case, the doomed romance was between a vampire and an HIV+ hematologist, who discovers that there's something in the vampire's blood that counteracts the HIV virus. In the last scene of the first act, the hematologist asks the vampire to turn him, so he won't suffer and die of AIDS, and the vampire is left with a monster of a moral dilemma. I wrote my best song ever for the Act I finale, when the vampire Zach explains his own origin story, a 10-minute soliloquy called "The Tale of Zachary Church" (see the clip below, recorded at a New Line concert), built very much on the model of R&H's "Soliloquy" in Carousel, and another big step forward for me as a composer, managing to keep such a long piece both interesting and unified. I was proud of this show, and I think it may be the best score I've written, but certain parts of the show really didn't work. Maybe it would be worth trying a rewrite, but I think I'd need a collaborator, at least on the book.

You can purchase the 1995 original cast recording here, the script here, and the vocal selections here.

New Line Theatre, 2006
Johnny Appleweed, subtitled An American Odyssey, was my adventure into the contemporary neo musical comedy, or as I usually refered to the show, my "stoner political satire," my response to the re-election of George W. Bush. It was about that same time I started smoking pot every night. (Thanks, Dubya!) I made myself a rule from the get-go, that I would never work on the Appleweed script without being stoned. I also found great value in writing lyrics not stoned, but rewriting them stoned. Quirkiest, most inventive lyrics I've ever written. The friendly, itinerant stoner-philosopher Johnny Appleweed drives what little story there is, as he collects a bunch of misfit friends (including Jesus and a thinly veiled Tammy Faye Bakker) to journey to Washington DC, to tell the President (a thinly veiled Dubya doppelganger) that he's fucking up our country and should stop that. I wrote my shortest song for this show, the five-measure-long "Fucking Up America," in which Johnny plans what to say to the President:
Mr. President,
Please stop
Fucking up America.
You're fucking up America.
Thanks for your time.

The show also included some genuinely strange songs like the mystical "Cannabis Dei;" the President's song about Ann-Margret, "I Tapped That Ass;" and a Presidential campaign song for Jesus himself called "What Would Jesus Do?" Maybe the weirdest thing in the show was a small inset scene early on, when "The Three Stoners" entered, very stoner-Brechtian, to explain the experience and culture of marijuana. The first part of the sequence was choral slam poetry, which segued into another really weird song called "The Scheme of Things." (Here's that full scene.) I realized toward the end of the run something that I hadn't understood when I wrote it. Johnny Appleweed is designed to make the audience feel stoned, even those who weren't (many were). It was intentionally disorienting, nonsensical, silly, poetic, free-flowing, and our heroes spent the entire first act just sitting in one place, talking about going...  Here's the show's finale, "A Great Big Cloud of Smoke."

You can purchase the script here, and the vocal selections here.

I don't think I ever wrote a more personal lyric than the very end of the show:
Johnny lives in you,
All the things you’d love to do,
Twice the wisdom, twenty times the fun.
(So much more fun!)
Live like Johnny lives,
Give the gift that always gives,
And don’t believe in everything you read.
And thank the Lord for
Johnny Appleweed.

I haven't written any new shows since Appleweed, though I keep getting great ideas, including several ideas for Appleweed sequels. But a few months ago, after seeing the Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company do a very funny children's version of A Christmas Carol, it made me think about writing something for kids myself. So I went home and started writing a children's musical, We Saved the World Today. As the story opens, a little girl is pissed off because there's a very big, busy road next to her favorite park, and it's dangerous. She assumes there's nothing she could do about it, until her Congressman happens by, and the two of them go on a whirlwind tour of Washington DC, taking their new bill through committees, through a filibuster, and finally to the President's desk. It's sort of an expanded "I'm Just a Bill," but it's also, weirdly enough, a companion piece to Johnny Appleweed, and I even used some Appleweed music to really connect the two pieces... though I doubt the two would ever be done together.

Writing shows is very hard work, and it's truly terrifying to put your work in front of an audience of strangers. I guess I do that as a director, but it's much more intense as the writer.

But I'm always glad I've written musicals myself when I'm working on someone else's show. It keeps me from being tempted to rewrite other people's work. It makes me respect the writing in a way that many actors and directors just don't. And it's made it waaaay easier to analyze shows, because I really do understand the nuts and bolts of musical theatre deep-down. And all that makes me a better director.

In the early days of New Line, the company needed me to write new shows, because there weren't that many shows being written in the early 1990s that fit New Line's aesthetic. But now there are tons of new shows being written, seemingly just for us. We don't need me as a writer now, because people like Larry O'Keefe, Amanda Green, Andrew Lippa, Tom Kitt, Pasek & Paul, etc., all are stronger writers than I will ever be. There is a shitload of wonderful, intelligent, new material out there now...

It's such an amazing time to work in the musical theatre. I hope you enjoyed my little trip down memory lane. I have published a collection of songs from all my musicals. I always assumed the target audience was my mother and me, but if you're curious, it's available on Amazon.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're interested, here are other posts about my artistic life and journey...
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals
Portrait of a Boy
Suddenly There is Meaning
And as for Fortune and as for Pain
Funny Girl, Whistle, and Fiddler, Oh My!


Joan Zobel | July 19, 2015 at 11:07 AM

It was great reading your innermost thoughts as you wrote those musicals. I remember when you called from Harvard and told me about the musical you wrote for your astronomy class. You didn't know how it would be received and told me you'd either flunk or get an A - the professor loved it and you got an A. I hope you find time to finish the children's musical - I'd love to see it because I'm still a child at heart!