25 Reasons I Love the Musical Theatre (And You Should Too)

In honor of New Line's 25th anniversary season, here are my twenty-five favorite things about the musical theatre. Not in any particular order...

1. Joy. Not every musical trades in joy, but most do, even some of the darker ones, even many of the cynical ones. Even if there isn't joy in the content, there's usually at least the kind of joy we get from seeing a stage full of actors dancing together or singing in glorious harmony. There's not a lot of joy in the world these days. You have to embrace it when you find it.

2. Transcendence. Theatre in general, but musical theatre in particular, is church. It is a genuine, often transcendent spiritual experience to enter this world of music and live inside it for a couple hours. (Or for the New Liners, lucky us, a few months!) As Sondheim said, "To live in music is a gift from God." But it's more than just transcending our daily lives; it's also about transcending our individual isolation, as we become part of either the organism that is the audience or the organism that is the performance. Musical theatre is by necessity the most collaborative of all art forms. As far as I'm concerned, it's better than religion.

3. Storytelling. I'm a storyteller. It's what I do. Storytelling is the foundation of all human culture and history, and almost all human communication (I've been reading a great book called The Storytelling Animal). And musical theatre is the richest form of storytelling, partly because it is the most collaborative of all art forms, but also because it combines the language of the concrete world with the abstract language of music and sometimes dance, the languages of thought and emotion. I'm admittedly biased, but I believe no other storytelling form can reach the power or emotional depth of top-notch musical theatre. And we need storytelling, to make sense of the world and ourselves, or as Sondheim puts it, to make order out of the chaos of being human.

4. Endless Variety. I can tell every conceivable kind of story within my art form – and I have. Here's a list I put together a while back of all the genres New Line has produced, while only producing musicals: comedy, drama, film noir, crime drama, thriller, melodrama, allegory, fairy tale, fable, folk tale, science fiction, documentary, sex farce, social satire, political satire, political drama, absurdism, expressionism, impressionism, religious drama, autobiography, confessional, horror... Our art form is endlessly pliable. Just look at Hamilton and The Visit. And beyond content, every kind of music lives comfortably in today's musical theatre, from old-school musical comedy foxtrots, to jazz, rock, pop, Latin, rap, funk, country, metal, alt-pop, techno, punk, emo, you name it. Isn't that cool?

5. The SIZE of the Emotion. There is no experience on earth like watching the finale of Sunday in the Park with George or A Chorus Line or Next to Normal or Hair. Or Jennifer Holliday singing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." Or Glynis Johns singing "Send in the Clowns." It's emotionally overwhelming, or as American Theatre magazine put it, in its review of New Line's 2008 production of Hair, "almost unbearably emotional." What else can give you an experience like that? My own personal theory is that this is why gay men love musicals, at least gay men my age and older; because they had to always mask their own emotions, but musical theatre was entirely about emotions, big ones, dramatic ones, even "forbidden" ones. Some people are uncomfortable with emotions that big, that powerful. So those people don't like musicals. Fine with me.

6. The Neo Musical Comedy. Some of my favorite newer shows are neo musical comedies, including Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Cry-Baby, Bukowsical, and a few older shows like Little Shop of Horrors and Little Me. With a couple exceptions, the neo musical comedies appeared in the mid- to late 1990s, with shows like Bat Boy and Urinetown. A neo musical comedy takes the form and devices of old-school musical comedy, but uses them in the service of dark, ironic content, and often pointed social or political commentary. They feel like musical comedies, but they've got way more guts and complexity.

7. Heroes. I know every field of human endeavor has some great heroes, but my musical theatre heroes kick serious artistic ass. Primary among them are Hal Prince, Steve Sondheim, Bob Fosse, Tommy Tune, Bill Finn, Kander & Ebb, Michael Bennett, George Abbott, and George M. Cohan, geniuses, visionaries, and great artists all of them. If you're a musical theatre fan and you don't know much about Abbott or Cohan, read up on them. We owe them both so much. In fact, we owe Cohan everything.

8. The Characters. (I mean the factional ones.) Because of the use of music, and the device of interior monologue, characters in contemporary musicals are often richer and more emotionally complex. Just look at the interior monologue songs in Heathers.

9. The People. (I mean the real ones.) The endlessly cool people working in the musical theatre are the craziest, most emotional, and yet most awesome people you'll ever meet, and I mean everybody, the people writing for the musical theatre, the people who work in the musical theatre, the people who love the musical theatre, the people who fill New Line's theatre show after show, ready and eager for another new musical adventure. I love musical theatre people!

10. The Classics. As my readers well know, I'm really over Rodgers & Hammerstein. I understand their importance in the evolution of the musical, but their work is no longer relevant to the world we live in. But some of the older shows, either through their timeless insights, their utterly unique styles, or the sheer perfection of their execution, still thrill me, no matter how many times I see them, including Of Thee I Sing (1931), Anything Goes (1934), The Cradle Will Rock (1937), Pal Joey (1940), Guys and Dolls (1950), West Side Story (1957), The Music Man (1957), and if they count as "classics," The Fantasticks (1959) and How to Succeed in Business…(1961). (For the record, I'm defining "classic" as pre-1964.)

11. David Edward Byrd, the legendary poster artist. Musical theatre posters are, in general, pretty amazing. There's something about musicals that really drives graphic artists to new heights. Our artists, first Tracy Collins, then Kris Wright, and now Matt Reedy, have done such exceptional work for us. But Byrd stands alone, as the artist behind the iconic posters for Follies, Godspell, The Robber Bridegroom, Little Shop of Horrors, Zombie Prom, Soon, The Grand Tour, The Magic Show, and a ton of revivals, and a ton of rock posters too.

12. Exit Music. Except when we're doing the heaviest of musical dramas, I always insist that we have exit music. It's awesome. I'm not even sure why I love it so much, maybe just because it extends the wonderful experience just a little more, maybe because it's the one time the band gets to really play out and get its own applause. Whatever the reason, I love exit music.

13. Cast Albums. When I was a kid, the only way to get any idea of the experience of seeing the great musicals was to listen to the cast album (and don't you dare call them soundtracks). Today, there are YouTube videos and other things, but growing up in the 70s, the cast album was it. I so love "experiencing" the show, but only through its songs, its emotional through-line, boiling the show down to its emotional essence. I still know every word of the scores to My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Hello, Dolly!, and so many more, from hours listening to the cast albums. In college when I discovered a new cast album, I'd listen to it nonstop day and night for weeks, driving my roommate crazy. I did that with Little Shop, March of the Falsettos, and Robber Bridegroom. And even today, I have found several cool shows for New Line by first finding the cast albums on Amazon. I found both The Ballad of Little Mikey and Bukowsical that way, and I think one or two others.

14. Piano-Vocal Scores. I bought my first PV score in junior high; The Fantasticks, and I played through that score constantly for months, though somehow never mastering the running thirds in the overture (piano players know what I mean). A little backstory first... my parents started me on piano lessons when I was four, and the only way they could keep me interested and willing to practice, was to give me each week a show tune along with my exercises, etc. I think my mother can still hear me pounding the piano in the basement, learning to play "Tradition" for about a month. All my life, playing through a theatre score has been pure bliss for me. I play everything but the scene changes, and sing at the top of my lungs till I completely roach my throat and can't sing anymore.

15. Musical Numbers on the Tonys. In this age of YouTube and bootleg videos, it's less important than when I was young. But even today, I love that once a year the whole country gets to see some of the latest work in New York musical theatre. And it's a wonderful way to preserve at least small pieces of cool but less successful musicals. In fact, many of the videos in New Line's YouTube History of Musical Theatre are clips from the Tonys. I have my beefs with the Tonys, and with awards for art in general, but seeing those musical numbers every year has always been pretty wonderful.

16. The New Golden Age. The American musical theatre moved into a new Golden Age in the mid-1990s, and we're still in the midst of it. I won't plead my usual case, since I've written so much about it here on my blog. And here. And here, here, here, and here...

17. YouTube. I sometimes think about early musical theatre fans, before cast albums, before Ed Sullivan, before the Tony Awards. I'm sure today young fans are wondering how we got along before YouTube. Not just clips from almost the entire history of our art form, but interviews, behind-the-scenes stuff, and so many productions! I love that Next to Normal fans can see on YouTube an earlier incarnation of the show at Second Stage. New Line has gathered together on our channel a ton of the coolest musical theatre content on YouTube, including footage from the original Follies and so much more.

18. Cut Songs and Early Demos. I love reading early drafts of shows, hearing the songs that got cut and/or rewritten. (There are a lot on YouTube.) I love getting a glimpse into the evolution of the project but also into the writing process itself. There aren't many art forms where you can get that glimpse. I guess you can look at an artist's early sketches, but this is different from that. As just one example, when we were working on Rent, we found all the early Rent demo recordings on YouTube. It was both fun and instructive to listen to them. For instance, in this early demo version, we find out in the first phone call that Mark's parents have thrown him out. Also, the first verse of the title song is Mark's suicide fantasy. I love stuff like that. When I read Ted Chapin's wonderful behind-the-scenes book about Follies, my favorite part was reading about how much they were changing, down to the last minute, throwing out songs, writing new songs, restaging dances, you name it. It all reminds us that making art is usually really messy and when it ends up a masterpiece, it's even more of a miracle than we think...

19. Shows That Get Submitted to Us. So many people send us their musicals, hoping we'll produce them. I'm sorry to say that most of them are just not high enough quality for us to produce, but some of them are great. And even if I don't often find shows for us that way, it's so encouraging to know that many people are out there writing new musicals. Because some of them are gonna be the next Jonathan Larson, or Pasek and Paul, or Jason Robert Brown. Keep writing!

20. Interior Rhymes. For me, hearing internal rhymes is like finding an intensely cool easter egg. They delight me. Two of my favorite practitioners are Sondheim and Brian Yorkey. Just listen to the Night Music, Next to Normal, and Heathers cast recordings, and really keep an ear out for the internal rhymes. They're everywhere, yet these brilliant writers never contort or invert a sentence to make a rhyme.

21. Earworms. A lot of musicals have earworms, melodies or even fragments of melodies that get caught in your brain, and the only way to get them out is to replace one earworm with another. So many of the shows we do have earworms out the butt. That can be awesome and it can be annoying, but mostly it's awesome. And let's be honest, you can't get earworms from a painting or a sculpture, am I right?

22. Jennifer Ashley Tepper. I've been calling her the hardest working woman in show biz, but only half joking (here's my podcast interview with her). She's an author and historian, and has written the two-volume Untold Stories of Broadway (more volumes are coming), She's also the producer of a concert series in New York called If It Only Even Runs a Minute, about great (or near-great) shows that flopped on or off Broadway. She's also the director programming at Feinstein's 54 Below in New York, where she produces solo cabaret shows, musical theatre reunion shows, and so much more. She has also worked on the Broadway shows [title of show], Godspell, The Performers, and Macbeth. She also co-produced Hit List, the live concert version of the fictional musical from Smash. She has worked on other projects with Ars Nova, National Alliance for Musical Theatre, The Producing Office, PBS, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, New York Musical Theatre Festival, Second Stage, The York Theatre, and the Tony Awards. See why she's the hardest working woman in show biz?

23. Peter Filichia. Another of my favorite people, Peter has the best Broadway stories I've ever heard, both stories that happened to him and stories other people told him. He holds more information about the Broadway musical in his head than anyone I've ever met, and he's written a ton of books about musical theatre, all of them really entertaining and chock full of cool info. Peter also writes four online columns, for Music Theatre International, BroadwaySelect.com, Masterworks Broadway, and Kritzerland Records.

24. Posters and Showcards. A while back, I asked New Line graphic artists why they enjoy designing theatre posters so much and why they're willing to do it for us for free. Both of them said the same thing – a theatre poster is a very different animal from any other graphic design job or any other advertising. It has to convey a ton of information about style, tone, themes, story, character, etc. with very few words. Almost every show, Matt Reedy sends me his graphic design, I open it to discover it's nothing like I expected, and yet it captures fully the style, tone, etc. of our show. Look at Matt's design for The Wild Party, in the style of a poster for a Marx Brothers comedy, but with hints of darkness, notably alcohol mixed with bullets. It feels like it should be wacky, but instead it feels a little unsettling. Exactly. I'm always astounded at how fully these artists can convey so many non-concrete ideas almost entirely through images and colors. Check out New Line's incredible poster gallery.

25. New Line Theatre. Okay, maybe I shouldn't list the company I run, as one of the great things about the art form. That's not exactly humble, is it? But the fact that New Line can exist and thrive for twenty-five years says something very cool about our art form and its evolution. New Line was there at the vanguard of this new Golden Age, several years before Rent, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Hedwig, Songs for a New World, or Noise/Funk. Not only do we produce lots of shows no one else in the area would produce, but we have brought back to life several musicals that were abused and left for dead by the New York commercial theatre, only to be greeted by rave reviews and packed houses here in St. Louis! New Line is the reason why there is now further life for High Fidelity, Cry-Baby (which just got picked up by MTI!), Night of the Living Dead, and we hope, Atomic, as well as several other shows. It's always been important to me that New Line not only produce new work and alternative work, but also that we continually Make the Case for our art form, for this Golden Age, and more – through our Facebook page, the New Line blogs, my analysis essays, our YouTube channel, and so much more. All the New Liners believe that we're not just serving our audience, but also the art form itself. And though we often do wild, crazy, outrageous shows, we take our work very seriously. As it deserves.

There's never been a better time to be alive for a musical theatre fanboy like me... Can you hear the people sing...?

Long Live the Musical!


Anonymous | November 17, 2015 at 11:45 PM

I'd add orchestrations. Topping my list of favorite orchestrators: Ralph Burns, Philip J. Lang and Redand Red Ginzler.