With our big anniversary approaching, I organized all of New Line's shows, over our first twenty-five seasons, in the order in which they first debuted. In a few cases, that debut was the New Line production.
I'm sharing this list because I think it's interesting to get a sense of the wide range of work we've done, going back almost to the beginning of our art form. We produce the most current works of the musical theatre, often in their first productions after Broadway or off Broadway; but we also produce shows spanning most of the history of the musical, including four shows from before 1960 (going back to 1928!), six shows from the 1960s, thirteen from the 1970s, only three from the 80s, and sixteen from the 90s. You can see from our repertoire when the revolutions happened – the mid 60s into the mid 70s, and again starting in the mid 1990s and still going on today.
People often use the phrase "a New Line show" (as in "Bukowsical is such a New Line show!"), meaning a musical that has the qualities we look for – fearless, smart, intense, outrageous, relevant, rule-breaking. It's cool to see that there were "New Line shows" in the first half of the last century, even before the Prince-Sondheim revolution. And as we just saw in June with Threepenny, some of those older shows pack as powerful a wallop as the more recent works.
So take a stroll through New Line's and the musical theatre's history...
The Threepenny Opera (1928)
The Nervous Set (1959)
The Fantasticks (1959)
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
Man Of La Mancha (1965)
Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris (1968)
Two Gentlemen Of Verona (1971)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
The Rocky Horror Show (1973)
The Robber Bridegroom (1974)
I Love My Wife (1977)
The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (1978)
Sweeney Todd (1979)
Tell Me on a Sunday (1979)
March Of The Falsettos (1981)
Sunday In The Park With George (1983)
Into The Woods (1987)
Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1990)
–[ New Line founded in late 1991 ]–
Attempting The Absurd (1992)
Breaking Out In Harmony (1994)
Hedwig And The Angry Inch (1994)
The Ballad Of Little Mikey (1994)
Songs For A New World (1995)
In The Blood (1995)
Floyd Collins (1996)
Bat Boy (1997)
Woman With Pocketbook (1998)
A New Brain (1998)
Reefer Madness (2000)
The Wild Party (2000)
She’s Hideous (2003)
The Amberklavier (2004)
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005)
High Fidelity (2006)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2006)
Jerry Springer The Opera (2007)
Love Kills (2007)
Passing Strange (2008)
Next To Normal (2009)
American Idiot (2009)
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
Night Of The Living Dead (2012)
Hands On A Hardbody (2013)
Tell the truth – Isn't that an impressive list?
There are so many trends in the art form that you can see illustrated in this list. You can see how personal the art form got in the 1990s, when for the first time, people wrote musicals not just in hopes of a Broadway production, but instead for the same reasons any other artist makes art.
More through happy accident than by design, New Line Theatre was founded in 1991 just as the idea of more purely artistic musical theatre was starting to take hold across the country. Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen writes in her outstanding book Directors and the New Musical Drama, “After the pioneering efforts of theatres such as the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York, the idea of the serious nonprofit musical spread to theatres across America during the 1990s. While these shows met with varying levels of economic and critical success, the very existence of this alternative home for the art form began to redefine the musical, offering an alternative to both the traditional Broadway musical and the new West End shows. As the economics of the commercial theatre became increasingly forbidding, the nonprofit theatre became vital incubators for musical drama and nurtured a new generation of musical theatre writers.”
a really wonderful feature about New Line in American Theatre magazine, and he noted, "What's interesting about New Line's early years is that the kind of musical the company has become identified with – essentially, shows stocked with varying proportions of the ingredients Miller celebrated in his 2011 book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,. and Musicals – was not thick on the ground in the early '90s. At the time, the form was still in a post-'80s, post-British-megamusical doldrums. When Rent came along in 1996, the new American musical got its biggest youthful shot in the arm since Hair. In the ensuing decades, and especially in the years since 2006's Spring Awakening, the number of rock musicals – and, more important, musicals with a distinctly post-Rodgers & Hammerstein moral sensibility – has grown to the point that Miller's wish list is longer than a Cole Porter patter song."
At last in the 90s there were other places (like New Line) to have a new musical produced. And that meant a musical could be a very, intensely personal work of art, with no commercial agenda whatsoever, shows like Passion, Rent, Hedwig, The Ballad of Little Mikey, Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, A New Brain. Of course, I'd argue that Sondheim got to that party about a decade ahead of schedule, with Sunday in the Park with George.
You can also see in this list the early evolution of the neo musical comedy starting in the mid to late 1990s, with shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Reefer Madness, Spelling Bee, Bukowsical, BBAJ, Cry-Baby, and of course my own shows, Attempting the Absurd (several years ahead of Bat Boy) and Johnny Appleweed.
There are several shows here about our never-ending battle between the 1950s and 1960s, including Grease, Rocky Horror, Cry-Baby, The Nervous Set, and The Fantasticks. And you can see in recent years, so many musicals about the breakdown of social institutions, like Cry-Baby, bare, Bonnie & Clyde, American Idiot, Hands on a Hardbody, Jerry Springer, Passing Strange, Night of the Living Dead. Although, that was also a topic in the 60s, in shows like Hair, La Mancha, and Cabaret.
You can see all through the 2000s that once again the art form isn't just breaking rules, it's making up all new ones. Look at the titles in these last 15 years – every one of these shows is like no other, every one utterly different from all the rest, and every one comes with its own set of rules.
New Line's last twenty-five years outline almost the entire history of our art form. That was never my conscious agenda, but it makes sense that it has happened. Storytelling is how we make sense out of the chaos of our lives. Life is pandemonium, as Mr. Barfée likes to remind us, so we need storytelling. And the American musical in particular tells the American story, our dreams, our fears, our ideals, our mistakes, our progress, our politics and culture, all of it, all explored and preserved in the musicals we all love so much.
Judy Newmark always writes really thoughtful reviews of our shows for the Post-Dispatch, often discussing them in the context of our past work, and in the context of our art form's history and/or trajectory. (This, by the way, is what makes Judy a theatre critic, and not just a reviewer.) As an example, in her review of New Line's I Love My Wife, she wrote:
New Line has done well with Hair, which it has mounted several times. It’s also staged strong productions of Grease and Chicago, the beat musical The Nervous Set, the slacker musical High Fidelity, and Return to the Forbidden Planet, set either in the 1950s or the future, maybe both. Put them all together, and it's an era-by-era look at changing American mores. Miller’s anthropological twist on musical theater gives New Line a distinctive point of view, brainy and bold.
I'm so proud of New Line and of the hundreds of New Liners who've worked with us over the last twenty-five years, for so many reasons. But one of those reasons is that alongside our agenda of producing exciting musical theatre, we're also charting the history of our country, our politics, and our culture.
As Mark Twain reportedly said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." Exactly. I learned so much about 21st-century politics from working on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and I learned so much about race working on Passing Strange.
So the New Line adventure continues, as we soon open our 25th season, in the beautiful new Marcelle Theater. An anniversary is a cool time to reflect on where we've been, where we are, and where we're headed. I wonder what the next twenty-five years will bring...
Long Live the Musical!