We Can Be Beautiful

One of the many things that are cool about Heathers the musical, is that the target of its satire, random violence in a culture without empathy, has evolved with the times. When the film came out in 1989, that target was a more generalized deterioration of the social compact in America, a loss of empathy in our politics and culture, born out of a deep-seated fear in conservatives of losing "their" country to the ever increasingly diverse and more tolerant culture of the 1960s and 70s.

But today that target of the satire is much narrower and much more pointed. After so many shootings in schools and other public places, and such open, visceral hatred of "The Other" (including our President) in today's culture, now the story becomes more about how that lack of empathy leads to acts of random, senseless violence. Because of the additional emotional impact of music, we understand these kids better and more fully in the stage show, and their darkness becomes much realer.

When the film debuted, the trench coat that Christian Slater wore as JD wasn't yet a reference to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and nobody knew where Columbine High School was. The movie was a cautionary fable about what could happen. The musical is an exploration of what is happening.

Now in truth, there have been school shootings in America for hundreds of years, but it wasn't till 1999 and Columbine that we really sat up and noticed as a culture, for the first time really, recognizing societal issues in the horror.

The musical's original director and production staff in New York tried to work against all that extra post-Columbine weight, but they shouldn't have. Despite the many laughs, no one can watch this show without thinking of Columbine. The weight is there, and the show's writers, Larry O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, have embraced that aspect of their story. They allow us, with songs like "Life Boat," "Seventeen," and "Kindergarten Boyfriend," to engage emotionally, rather than holding us at a satirical arm's length.

Maybe more than any other art form, musical theatre is always in a conversation with the culture. As I wrote in a post on the Fourth of July:
From its birth, the American musical theatre has been a form that could have emerged only from a culture like ours, a massive mashup of all (well, mostly Western) human culture, and the art form evolved as America evolved. The casts onstage became integrated as America became integrated. Female characters became overtly sexual (in shows like On the Town and Pal Joey) as American women became overtly sexual. Musical comedy morality became more ambiguous as mainstream American culture moved away from the certainties of traditional organized religion. Every choice made by writers, directors, and designers was political, and each choice either reinforced or challenged prevailing social and political values in America. No, No, Nanette in the 1920s was about wealth and its implications. Anything Goes in the 1930s was about American culture’s preoccupation with celebrity, particularly criminal celebrity. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the 1940s was about America’s reinvigorated postwar hypermaterialism.

For a while during the late 90s and early 2000s, I wrote for In Theatre magazine, a very cool magazine covering New York commercial theatre and regional theatre across the country. I wrote several articles and reviews for them, while they lasted. My review of Lanford Wilson's Book of Days at the Rep even got quoted on the back of the published script!

The other day, I came across this piece I wrote In Theater about Steve Woolf at the Rep. I love so much what he's talking about here, and I feel like it directly relates to why we produce shows like Hathers. Here's the article...

St. Louis' Vibrant Rep
IN THEATER, August 30, 1999
by Scott Miller

Steve Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, sees pretty much everything he does as interactive, as a discussion with the community. "We are the repository of things live," he says. "Entertainment is getting less and less live these days, but every night seven hundred people come together in our theatre to celebrate things live."

He smiles and adds, "It's civilizing."

That it is. And it might come as a surprise that in a major metropolis like St. Louis, the Rep boasts a subscriber base larger than the St. Louis Blues hockey team and even Mark McGwire's world-famous St. Louis Cardinals. A decade and a half ago, when Woolf came to St. Louis, the Rep had only 9,200 subscribers. Today, it's more like 21,000. What's the secret to his success?

The Discussion. He sees each season as an ongoing conversation with the community about all the things that need discussing in our modern world. "We have a high responsibility to have a conversation with the community," he says. But the wonderful back-and-forth between actor and audience that only live theatre provides is only part of the conversation. There’s also the four-page subscriber letter Woolf writes and sends out to the 21,000 before every mainstage show. There are post-show discussions and Monday night "Talk Theatre" background talks. The program book for each Rep show contains historical and background notes, notes from Woolf, and notes from the director, all designed to help the audience better understand and better enjoy what they're seeing.

But Woolf also knows the importance of developing our future audiences. The Rep's WiseWrite program, co-sponsored with Springboard to Learning, goes into fifth grade classrooms, guides students on a year-long process of writing and refining short plays, then puts those plays on the Rep mainstage, with professional actors, sets, lights, and costumes, and each young playwright at a place of honor at the side of the stage to watch his or her creation come to life.

The other part of the Rep's success is programming. Backed by a devoted staff and a courageous board, Woolf programs the most fascinating work the theatre has to offer – hits directly from Broadway and off-Broadway, the best of Shakespeare, Miller, Albee, Stoppard, and Sondheim, alongside premieres by the most exciting up and coming writers working in the theatre. Not every new piece is a success but Woolf accepts the risk philosophically. "We'll go down in flames every once in a while. It’s art."

And not only does the Rep bring to St. Louis America’s top theatre artists at the top of their game, Woolf also takes audiences on multi-season journeys, creating exciting programming arcs over the course of two or more seasons. In recent years, successive seasons have included Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband followed by Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, first a look at Wilde’s work, then a look at Wilde himself. We've seen Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and coming next season, Into the Woods, a chance to explore the themes that Sondheim returns to over and over in his work. This season we've seen Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, a play which Woolf sees as a kind-of workshop version of the Bard’s later, more sophisticated take on similar themes, Much Ado About Nothing, which we'll see next season.

In this time when true repertory companies are scarce, the Rep has created what Woolf calls a "national company," a diverse group of actors from across the country, who come back, season after season, to try new things and tackle roles they might not otherwise get to try. It's a great opportunity for the actors, but it's also a treat for Rep audiences to see these men and women move from role to role. Two members of the "national company," Anderson Matthews and Chris Hietikko, have appeared in recent Rep seasons in Arcadia, A Question of Mercy, Betrayal, Death of a Salesman, and next season, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, each time their relationships different, and each time the chemistry between them even more remarkable.

Next year's season will include the first full-scale production of Lanford Wilson’s brand new play Book of Days, Much Ado About Nothing, Into the Woods, the Broadway hit The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and one more play still to be announced, as well as a three-show studio season which won't be announced until summertime.

There are outstanding regional theatres across America, but the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is having the kind of discussion with the community that all theatre companies should aspire to, the kind that makes it clear why live theatre remains so vibrant and alive in the heartland.

# # #

I still believe now what I believed when I wrote this piece – if we're not having a conversation with our audience about things that matter, what's the point of making theatre? The audience aren't just observers; they're a part of all this.

The great Joseph Campbell once said, "Anyone writing a creative work knows that you open, you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself. To a certain extent, you become the carrier of something that is given to you from what have been called the Muses – or, in biblical language, 'God.' This is no fancy, it is a fact. Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone. So when one hears the seer’s story, one responds, 'Aha! This is my story. This is something that I had always wanted to say but wasn't able to say.' There has to be a dialogue, an interaction between the seer and the community."

Heathers is very entertaining, and you'll laugh at things you probably never thought you'd find funny, but this show is also a serious conversation with us about some of our darkest problems. We lost our national empathy and we need to find it again. The kids tell us in the finale, "We can be beautiful." The question is: will we choose to be?

The conversation continues...

Long Live the Musical!