In this new Golden Age of the art form, the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical have become the new default forms, and rock has become the default musical language. While early rock musicals were about the rock (JC Superstar, Evita, Tommy, Hair), now rock is just the common language between writers and audience.
It always cracks me up when musical theatre fans complain that period shows shouldn't use rock and roll, because rock isn't period. Yeah? I wonder how many people in 19th century Siam were jamming to Rodgers & Hammerstein foxtrots... (And, BTW, lots of open fifths doesn't actually make the music Asian.) I'm sure Capt. Macheath and the Peachums wouldn't be singing Kurt Weill's dissonant 20th-century jazz, either. And so what? We can be pretty confident that President Andrew Jackson wasn't a rock and roll fan, but rock is still the only appropriate language for the rowdy, aggressive, smartass Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
As rock has taken over the theatre's musical vocabulary, it has also imposed its more fundamental value on our theatre: authenticity. No more the wink-wink bullshit of the Fourth Wall or the R&H Interior Monologue. Those are lies. The rock musical shares many values with German theatre artist and philosopher Bretolt Brecht. The most authentic act we can make is to admit the artifice, to admit that there is no Fourth Wall, and that the audience is sitting right there the whole time.
But contemporary audiences also want authenticity and honestly in the acting and the emotions, in the storytelling and its themes. Why does everybody enjoy Shrek so much? Because it admits the "lie" of Disneyfication and its cleaning-up of reality.
We've finished blocking Atomic, and I realize one of my initial fears was misplaced. The thing that's hardest for me to stage is a "clever" number. I need character and story to physicalize a song well. And though Atomic feels like an intense mashup of thriller and rock concert, that's not really what it is. It's a rock drama. I've found as I stage the show I essentially have two jobs: make the story as clear to the audience as I can, and traffic control.
This show moves like lightning, with instantaneous scene changes. Don't get me wrong; this is my favorite kind of show, what I like to call "a perpetual motion machine." There's so much story and it moves so fast. We literally move through three countries within the span of a few minutes, but I have to offer up some props to our writers – they really do make it work.
So I don't have time to think about clever. I have to get this story moving like a Swiss watch, and then make sure I get out of its way and let our actors and musicians ride it where it goes. Nothing but lean storytelling. There's too much plot to treat it otherwise. I'd get in its way. It really is a thriller, though I doubt that will register consciously on anyone.
We have to find the authenticity in Atomic's times and politics, in these moral arguments, in these complex emotions and relationships, in the pressure and freaky high stakes under which everyone is working. If we get at the truth of all that, everything will be richer, and the audience will be fully engaged – not just in the events and people, but in the moral positions. What if we had to make these choices? Which would we choose?
As in 1776, Atomic earns lots of authenticity points for painting these characters as real, flawed, fucked up people, who nonetheless achieve great things. In both shows, the accomplishments are all the more impressive considering how "human" and combative its creators are. Most of them really are not team players. Who could expect them to be (other than the military)...?
Or maybe the point of Atomic is really how gray it all is, how complicated, how not clear. How human. That's authenticity.
Authenticity is the most important thing an artist can have. Once you can fake that, you've got it made. Hee, hee.
Apparently, the internet can't decide whether I stole that from Jean Giraudoux or George Burns. Either way, the point of the joke stands. Since the 1960s, we judge a person by their authenticity. Nobody wants to be a phony or a poser. Before that, it seems, the main criterion was Decency. I prefer it this way. I value truth over nice.
You may not have recognized it as such, but you've made this distinction when you see a piece of theatre. You surrender yourself, or you don't, to the storytelling. You identify with, or you don't, the protagonist. You recognize your own experience, or you don't, in the events onstage. It all boils down to authenticity. Are the emotions and ideas being presented honest? Do they reveal truth about us and our world?
It's why so many people like Bernie Sanders, who is so joyfully unpolished, over the rigorously trained and controlled Hillary Clinton. It's why they like the freaky chaos of Donald Trump over the obviously and overly practiced college debating skills of... [weighty dramatic pause] ...Ted Cruz.
I mean really, who wants to have a beer with a guy from the debating team?
And likewise, who wants to watch a phony, dishonest performance from an actor? Acting isn't about imitating emotions; it's about experiencing them. Don't show us what a sad person's face and body language looks like; feel sad and we will read it on your face and in your body, and we'll feel it too. We want to go on the journey with the actors; we don't want to look at vacation pictures later.
And that's particularly difficult in the inherently artificial world of the musical theatre, where people break into song, sing harmony, and dance in unison.
But difficult is not impossible.
Perhaps that tightrope is most treacherous when it comes to comedy. Great comedy is always two things, both a surprise and the truth. Cheap comedy is just a surprise. Too many directors and actors apparently don't think real life is very funny (they're wrong), because any time they want to create comedy (any time), they go for shameless, over-the-top, wacky, muggy, full-front silliness, along the way totally abandoning authenticity and honesty. They deliver surprise (which wears thin fast), but no truth.
People routinely ruin Bat Boy, Urinetown, High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, and other great shows this way, all of which work best when they are the most honest. Directors often cast comedians for these shows, when they should be casting really strong actors.
I think many storytellers in our culture today don't respect storytelling. They don't understand their place in our culture and how important it is.
Just look at the phenomenon of Hamilton, which is a genuine masterpiece, by the way. Look how powerfully that story – and in particular, Lin-Manuel Miranda's storytelling – connects to millions of us. Look at how Rent and Wicked and Hair and so many other shows have touched millions of people.
We do ourselves a disservice when we consider what we do anything less than important, when we give our audiences anything less than what they deserve, when we think of our work as "just" entertainment or "just" escapism. We are the storytellers. We are the shamans.
We are the light.
No, most of us don't earn enough as theatre artists to live on, but neither have our artistic ancestors for the last several thousand years. Actors and other storytellers have never been well paid or well respected. We are on the outside, just like many of the characters in Atomic. "Normal" people can't really understand us or our art. And that's okay. That outsider status and lack of financial resources is part of what makes us the artists we are, and part of what allows us to stand back and observe the people and the world around us, with genuine insight and understanding.
And maybe other theatre people will disagree with me, but I can't complain about how little I make, about how hard it is to pay bills, because I love what I do. I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet, getting to work on amazing shows like Atomic, with incredible artists, and then share them with big, enthusiastic audiences. I can't muster feelings of indignation that I don't make "a living wage" making theatre. Almost all my friends make more money than I do, but not one of them is happier than I am.
Nobody owes me anything. If anything, I owe the world something. No, strike that. I owe the world a lot.
We open Atomic in a few weeks. Ours will be the second production after off Broadway. As we've learned these great songs, and I read about the real world events behind our story, as we launch this new adventure, I can't help but feel so fucking lucky.
Long Live the Musical!