The coolest thing to happen to our art form lately is a proliferation of small companies across the country producing the kind of shows that used to need saving by New Line. Ten years ago, probably only New Line could have rescued Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or Bonnie & Clyde or Hands on a Hardbody. But today, as soon as the rights are released, lots of companies produce these shows. New Line always used to be the first company after New York to do shows like this, but now we're often just among the first. And that's a really great portent for the future health of our art form.
Broadway is no longer the center of the American musical theatre, as it was mid-century. And yet, it's still Broadway, right? (Two of our New Liners are in New York seeing shows as I type this.) Because I was born in the 60s, Broadway was all there was for the first part of my life, Broadway cast albums, Broadway stars on TV variety shows, Broadway numbers on the Tony broadcast, and productions of older Broadway shows at the Muny and my brothers' high school.
Maybe it's because of New Line's 25th anniversary, or the fact that I'm over fifty now, but I've been thinking (and writing) a lot lately about the artistic influences that got me to where I am now. And here I go again.
This is a list of all the shows I've ever seen in New York. There aren't as many as you might think for a big musical theatre nerd like me, mainly because often, both New Line and I have been too poor to get me up to the Big Bad Apple. What ever happened to the days of royal patronage?
Still, despite my annoyance with those who think Broadway is still the be-all-end-all, I must admit I've seen some truly amazing shows up there that I'll never forget as long as I live. My junior year in high school, I had the chance to go to New York for the first time, with the Honor Society, to see seven Broadway shows (the thrill of my fucking life!) plus the Radio City Music Hall show (which I don't even remember, except that it was dumb). Oh yeah, we also went to Washington DC after New York, and I don't have a single memory of that either.
commercial video that same production, at the Delacorte before it moved to Broadway, where I saw it. (I'm not talking about the leaden film version of that production; this is a video of the stage production.) All but one of the cast is the same, so I get to relive my first Broadway experience whenever I want.
Which is fucking incredible.
My first trip was in April 1981, and I saw my first six Broadway musicals...
The Pirates of Penzance
A Chorus Line
A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine
Every one of them was beyond thrilling – the high concept of Barnum (telling his life story in the language of circus acts, which foreshadowed the end of the story), the intense Brechtian political theatre of Evita, my first look at a true masterwork, A Chorus Line (which I've since seen 19 more times), Tommy Tune's insanely funny evening of one-acts, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (the first act a revue about Old Hollywood, the second act a musical Chekhov play starring the Marx Brothers), and Gower Champion's brilliant 42nd Street, an absolutely perfect example of early 20th-century musical comedy, more authentic than anything else I've ever seen.
It was a week-long master class in my art form.
In case you're wondering, the seventh show I saw on that trip was Deathtrap in a truly powerful production. It was so scary, so ballsy, so aggressive, and it had the audience screaming several times. I didn't list Deathtrap because I'm talking about musicals, but that show taught me two very important things. First, fucking stand still unless you have a reason to move. I had never seen a show so cleanly staged in my life, never a wasted movement, and it really focused the storytelling – and the scares! Second, the size of stage performance was bigger than real life (and film acting), magnifying but also focusing reality. Theatre scholar Tom Oppenheim wrote in one of my favorite books, Training of the American Actor, about the great acting teacher Stella Adler, "Stella insisted that characters must be multidimensional and grounded in oneself. They must be real human beings. But she does not shy away from painting characters in broad strokes. While she demands truth, she never shies away from size." Every show I saw on this first trip to New York illustrated all this.
Except for A Chorus Line. I didn't get it until I saw it live onstage, when it hit me that A Chorus Line is a "documentary musical," a naturalistic (as far as possible) musical drama. I learned so much on that trip.
And then the next Christmas my brother Rick gave me on of those brass theatre ticket keychains, with The Pirates of Penzance on it. I still wonder to this day who thought there'd be a market for Pirates of Penzance keychains. But I still have mine.
In June 1986, my mom came up to Boston to see me at college, and we went down to New York to see three shows.
La Cage aux Folles
Little Shop of Horrors
Again, three wonderful shows. The original La Cage was so magnificent and so joyful, really supreme old-school musical comedy; although I have to say, now that I've seen the 2010 revival, I think I like the show better when it's treated like a drama instead of a musical comedy. But I didn't know that back then. I just knew George Hearn was incredible. Seeing the original Little Shop was another mind-blower for me, a really early neo musical comedy, foreshadowing the new Golden Age that started a decade later, and that also really changed how I thought about my art form. And the revival of Sweet Charity was also really wonderful, with Debbie Allen and Michael Rupert in the leads, and Fosse's original choreography recreated.
My next trip wasn't until June 1996, after a ten-year period of extreme artsy poverty, when a great uncle died and left me $10,000 (which I blew on a giant TV, a computer, and an awesome NY trip), but then I started going up fairly regularly. That first trip back was likewise mind-blowing.
Bring on da Noise, Bring on da Funk
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
The King and I
How to Succeed...
Seriously, tenth row, center, for Rent, right after it moved uptown, before the cast album had even been released. All I knew was that everyone was losing their shit over this show and I had to see it. And yes, it was one of the two or three greatest thrills of my entire life. I still get so emotionally overwhelmed just thinking about that experience. It connected with me more deeply, more powerfully, than any other show ever had.
Of the other shows on that trip, How to Succeed, with Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker (right at the end of the run), was a real misfire by Des McAnuff, who just didn't understand the material. It was really cute and frothy, when it should be dark, razor-sharp satire. And Forum with Nathan Lane was a lot of fun, but Lane was too eager to violate that brilliant script, which was a little disappointing. There's not a single anachronism in the Forum script, which is part of what makes it funny, but many people have played that lead without understanding that. Still, it was a good production.
And now a little story. On that trip I was staying with a fiend of a friend, who lived in Manhattan. And this guy was college friends with Frank Rich. So I ended up, one afternoon, sitting in Frank Rich's office at The New York Times, talking musical theatre, The high school theatre geek inside me was jumping up and down with glee. So Rich asked me what shows I was seeing, and I told him, and he said, "You really ought to see The King and I." This was the revival with Lou Diamond Philips and Donna Murphy. And I said to Frank, "I don't really like Rodgers & Hammerstein." And he said, "You really should see it."
When I left his office, I thought, Frank Rich just told me I should see a show, who the fuck am I to ignore Frank Rich? So I bought a ticket to The King and I, and Frank was right. The production was a revelation, really changing how I experienced and thought about this story, partly because Australian director Christopher Renshaw made some fairly radical changes. As we entered the theatre, we saw Buddhist monks praying, and the show began with a prayer ceremony. It was incredibly culturally respectful, and that made the whole story seem more serious, even in the lighter scenes. Renshaw cut everything that was unintentionally racist about the original material, and most radical of all, the production focused like a laser on the acting, relationships, subtext, all the things that usually get lost along the way in productions of Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. It was a much smaller, more intimate story, despite the (arguably) necessary spectacle.
Now, instead of a show about the smart English lady and the backward but proud barbarians, it became a story about an unavoidable clash of civilizations, and the Moses-like sacrifice of this intelligent, forward-thinking, thoughtful King.
Years later, I still remember that production, and I wonder why it is that we usually need a foreign director to make R&H shows work now.
My next trip was in February 1998. I saw...
The Lion King
When Pigs Fly
I bought tickets to see Ragtime twice, the first time from the front row. It was everything I knew it would be, thrilling, powerful, emotional. But I think the biggest thrill for me was seeing that cast, experiencing up close the powerful presence of Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, and Marin Mazzie, the kind of electricity I always hear people mention in talking about Ethel Merman or Mary Martin.
Even cooler, I got to meet and chat with Lynn Ahrens and Steve Flaherty over bagels, between my two times seeing the show. What a fucking awesome thrill that was. They were incredibly nice.
The Lion King was a brilliant physical production of really mediocre material (except for the cool African vocals by Lebo M) and mediocre acting. The Capeman was a bit of a mess, but utterly amazing, and I'll always remember at the end of the show, the audience leaping to our feet, screaming, cheering. I remember being so stunned when it closed so quickly. I loved it. And Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly was just a silly gay revue off Broadway, but it really was clever.
A New Brain
My next trip was in January 1999, and I saw wild shit!
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch from the front row center at the awesomely creepy Jane Street Theatre, and because I'm a great laugher, John Cameron Mitchell started playing a lot of jokes to me, and then I was the lucky recipient of his "car wash" – he stood above me on the arms of my theatre seat, and brushed my head with the fringe on Hedwig's cowboy skirt. Yet another show that shattered any preconceptions I may have had and again changed the way I thought about making musicals.
Jason Robert Brown's Parade was a fucking harrowing musical! Not a pleasant journey to go on, but utterly brilliant in every way. Such powerful theatre. And seeing Fosse was about as awesome as anything I could imagine, a whole evening of dance by one of my greatest artistic heroes. It was thrilling.
I went back again in January 2000 and saw...
Putting It Together
Kiss Me, Kate
Putting It Together was an abomination. I have nothing positive to say about it. And Marie Christine was maybe the most boring musical I've ever seen. I actually came close to dozing off a couple times, and easily a third of the audience didn't come back after intermission. On the other hand, Kiss Me, Kate, with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, was pretty great, and I was surprised to enjoy this show I had never really liked all that much...
I went again in April 2001 and was back in musical theatre heaven.
Naked Boys Singing
Bat Boy was everything I could ever want from the musical theatre, all in one crazy, outrageous, brilliant, satirical show. This was another show that I walked out of, thinking, How soon can I get the rights to do this?
The Producers isn't the best material in the world, but I saw it the day after it opened on Broadway, and that original cast was as perfect as anyone could have hoped, and overall, Susan Stroman's production was just about perfect old-school musical comedy. I don't know that I've ever seen a group of leads having more fun on a stage. Follies was not perfect, but it was very good, and it was my first time seeing this masterpiece live. And Naked Boys Singing was much smarter and more clever than I expected. Plus pretty naked men.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, I kept seeing all those commercials begging us to come back to New York, and I decided I owed Broadway something. So I flew up in November 2001, thrilled in part to see Bat Boy again!
tick… tick… BOOM!
I was pleasantly surprised by tick... tick... BOOM!, Jonathan Larson's earlier, very autobiographical show, which his family got produced. I really enjoyed it. And I was delighted to get a chance to see an early show by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt called Roadside at the York Theatre. But as cool as it was to see this very charming show, it was even cooler to meet the two writers in the lobby before the show. I tried to just say hello and leave them alone, but they wanted to know all about St. Louis and New Line. They couldn't have been nicer.
Bat Boy was scheduled to close soon, so the audience for my second time was PUMPED. It confirmed for me that A.) Bat Boy is pure genius, and B.) it is a New Line show if ever there was such a thing. And then I discovered so is Urinetown! Those two shows have now become among my favorite shows ever. I didn't know it then, but I was witnessing the birth of this new Golden Age.
I went back again in March 2002, and saw...
The Last Five Years
The Sweet Smell of Success
The Oklahoma! revival with Patrick Wilson was really mediocre. Big fuckin' yawn. But Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years was really cool, Norbert Leo Butz was incredible, and Jason was playing and leading the band, which meant they rocked a little harder. And I got to meet and briefly talk with Jason after the show, which was awesome.
Finances didn't allow me to return to New York until October 2009, and I had a mostly great trip.
Next to Normal
Diane Paulus' incredible revival of Hair was just perfect in every conceivable way (except for a couple Broadway belters among the women). Having studied the show deeply, directed it three times, and written a whole book about it, I'm not easy to please when it comes to Hair, but I was thrilled. Plus, we were in the front row, and Will Swenson as Berger (wearing nothing but a loin cloth) literally climbed up my body at one point to fuck with the person sitting behind me. I did not mind one bit.
Toxic Avenger was terrible. Stupid, clumsy, not funny, and weirdly, stealing almost the entire plot of Bat Boy. What is that about? On the other hand, Next to Normal was also thrilling and emotional and unbelievably powerful. I walked out, knowing we'd tackle it as soon as they'd let us.
I went back in November 2010 and saw some really amazing theatre...
La Cage aux Folles
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The Scottsboro Boys
This was one of the most artistically satisfying trips I've ever taken to New York. I knew nothing about American Idiot going into the theatre, but I instantly fell in love with its music and incredibly strong storytelling. The revival of La Cage with Douglas Hodge was a fucking revelation! By treating the material like a quirky drama instead of a musical comedy, by making the characters and the club realer and less stylized, this production completely transformed the material (with virtually no rewrites), into something even cooler than the original. I walked out thinking, La Cage really could be a New Line show!
And Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was another show that changed what I thought about my art form – such a wild, rowdy, bizarre, and yet truthful and powerfully insightful piece of theatre. It's very conception is pure genius, making Andrew Jackson into a whiny teenage emo kid, in order to illuminate the zeitgeist of the 1820s. My only thought after the show was When can I get rights to this?
And then I saw The Scottsboro Boys, another genuine masterpiece from Kander and Ebb, fully equal to Cabaret and Chicago. Truly one of the most powerful, most emotional, most thrilling things I've ever seen on any stage. It was almost unbearable and yet one of the greatest theatre experiences of my life.
The last time I got up to New York was in November 2011, but what a trip I had! So many amazing shows!
The Blue Flower
Bonnie & Clyde
The revival of Follies was utterly Perfect. I realized while I was watching it that this was the closest I would ever get to understanding what the original Follies was like – searing, thrilling, shattering, incendiary – one of the most difficult and most beautiful pieces ever written for the musical stage. This was the third time I had seen Follies onstage (including once in London in 2002), but the other two didn't even compare to this. Utterly fucking mind-blowing.
The Blue Flower also blew my mind, this brilliant, wild, quirky collage-musical about artists in Europe during the first World War, using projected film and photos more integrated than in any other show I've ever seen. The show was billed as "a playful Dada inspired romp through the memories unleashed at the moment of Max's death, centering on three friends and lovers he lost and the apparitions of events that overwhelmed their lives during World War I and the restless post-war years of the Weimar Republic in Germany." Totally fucking brilliant theatre, like nothing else I've ever seen. Someday I want to produce this show, but it will be quite an undertaking!
Lysistrata Jones and Bonnie & Clyde were both totally wonderful, great scores, great writing, great casts, great productions, and yet both closed just a few months after I saw them. (I also had a really weird, uncomfortable encounter with Casey Nicholaw, director of The Book of Mormon.)
And then there was the revival of Rent, which again blew my mind (my mind was getting used to it by now). This production was TOTALLY different from the original, different staging, different set, very different characterizations, and yet directed by the same guy as the original, the brilliant Michael Greif. It was like seeing Rent for the first time again, and what could be better than that?
One other thing I love to do when I'm in New York is go to the New York Public Library's Theatre on Film and Tape Collection at Lincoln Center. Over the years, I've seen so many shows on video there, Songs for a New World, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Grey Gardens, Falsettos, The Burnt Part Boys, excerpts from the original (and awful) Carrie, and others. Such a great resource!
I haven't been back to New York since 2011, because neither New Line nor I have been able to afford to send me back (maybe next fall?), but I have two excellent video bootlegger friends who help me with that problem... Shhhh! Don't tell anyone...
There have been so many influences on me and my work over the years, but the shows and productions listed here were among the most consequential of those influences. I'm a different artist than I would have been otherwise because I saw these productions of The Pirates of Penzance, Little Shop of Horrors, Follies, Rent (both times!), The Blue Flower, A New Brain, Evita, Hedwig, Ragtime, Bat Boy, Urinetown, and so many others.
I'm sure there are many more influences to come...
Long Live the Musical!