It's Time to Choose

One of the things I love about our process is that it's fairly leisurely, and we don't try to polish much at all early on. We don't really work scenes until we put the whole puzzle together. Many directors work the scenes individually till they're just perfect, then put them together; but I don't think that leads as easily to a sense of unity among all the scenes.

A painter wouldn't do a sketch of just one corner of the picture, then paint that, then do a sketch of the next little section of it, then paint that... They'd sketch the whole picture, then paint it, right?

The coolest part of New Line's process is that we can really change course midway through and still have enough time to reorient. That doesn't happen often, but it happens.

A piece of theatre is a living organism. It grows and evolves. I often don't really know what the end product will be until we get there. That was the case with Atomic. So it would be silly to insist that every idea at the beginning of the process must be preserved throughout. As the show changes, as its final form slowly emerges, some ideas may no longer fit comfortably. There's no shame in changing shit...

I once staged "And the Money Kept Rolling In," in our Evita, four times before I felt good about it. Kudos to the actors for putting up with that. I'm lucky my ego didn't prevent me from seeing that the first three attempts weren't terribly successful...

Oh, let's be honest, asking the actors to run in place to music in 7/8 was just mean...

We opened Atomic last week and we were lucky enough to have both writers, Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman, fly up from Australia to see the show. They loved our production and it was such fun having them here. After they had seen a couple performances, they asked me (very gently) for a few very small changes. In a couple cases, we had done what they were asking, but couldn't make it work, so we had changed it. But I was happy to try their suggestions. A couple took some pondering, but I think we ended up putting all but one or two into the show.

If those changes would have been big ones, I probably would have resisted. I hate doing that to actors after we open.

On the other hand...

A week or so earlier, before opening, we contemplated an arguably substantial change...

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog post analyzing Atomic's powerful Act II number, "Only Numbers," and the motivations of the three characters who sing it, our hero Leo, his girlfriend Trude, and bomber pilot Paul Tibbets. I was convinced we had figured it out. But as we continued to run the show, I began to rethink my ideas about Tibbets in this scene. I don't think my earlier ideas are "wrong" and what follows is "right," but I think I have a better, and certainly different, grasp on it now...

The problem that surfaced was that Tibbets was one guy in the dialogue scene before the song (a characterization I really liked) and a totally different, darker, more mature, more thoughtful, more nuanced guy during the song. In working on the "Dialogue Tibbets," we had really found who this guy was, but that guy wasn't singing the song...

I decided: 1.) this would confuse the audience; and so, 2.) we needed to pick a road and commit to it.

Maybe my problem was initially thinking of "Only Numbers" as a Serious Song. That can be a deadly trap. It is that, but as soon as we impose Serious on it, it becomes melodramatic. The content should define the seriousness more than the delivery.

We were imposing an awareness on the lyric that Tibbets would not have. He doesn't know it's a Serious Song. We were approaching the song from the point of view of the entire story (or at least from the point of view of Leo and Trude), rather than from the point of view of this one hotshot pilot on this one mission, in his cockpit en route to Japan. Tibbets knew some details of the mission, but (at least in the show) he does not seem to have a real understanding of the power and magnitude of this weapon.

We can't impose upon him our judgment from 2016. What this guy knows are his orders, and that he's doing this for god and country. We shouldn't make him into a big tragic character – he's still a cocky smartass. It's our knowledge of history that makes his mission so tragic. But in that moment, he should still be the same guy who sang the jingoistic "Stars and Stripes."

Our first take on this guy was valid, but this is a much more interesting, much richer approach.

Maybe what makes "Only Numbers" so interesting to me, and so intense, is what Tibbets doesn't know, that dissonance between Leo and Trude's horror versus Tibbets' shallow patriotism; and between Tibbets' relative ignorance about this weapon versus the audience's knowledge of history. We all know the Enola Gay; Tibbets just knows it's his mother's name. Leo and Trude are all wrapped up in moral questions, but Tibbets has the (relative) comfort of moral certainty. He's giving it his all.

That contrast is so much more interesting, and also I think, more truthful – science versus military, always-questioning versus never-questioning, one of the themes of the story. This way, the song is an expansion and complicating of the contrast between Tibbets and Leo that we've seen in the two bar scenes.

Tibbets starts "Only Numbers" with this lyric:
Those people down below,
Just numbers.
Nobody that I know,
Just numbers
It wasn't me that made the call,
But if it ends the war, then I'm giving it my all.

There's nothing inherently dramatic or grand in those lines. In fact, they're pretty shallow. It's our knowledge of the rest of the story (and hearing the other two characters) that makes it powerful and sad. That shouldn't come from Tibbets himself. In early rehearsals, we were talking about Tibbets as if he has lots of layers to him. I no longer think that's who this guy is. Not everybody has layers.

So how different is this from how we first approached him? The difference is very subtle, entirely interior, but it changes how Tibbets sings those lines.

Maybe the distinction between our two approaches is this: initially we weighted him down with the morality of killing people, but now what weighs on him is the importance of his mission, the responsibility to his country and comrades in arms, his part in moving the war effort forward (or ending it!), his fervent belief that if he doesn't do his duty, Hitler will invade America. In Tibbets' mind, the entire war effort is on his shoulders. But that's not the same as grappling with the moral questions behind the bomb.

That's just about winning.

I realized we shouldn't give Tibbets a moral depth that this guy would not have. Soldiers are taught to obey without questioning. Leo and Trude's verses are about moral grappling; I now think Paul's verse is about a lack of moral grappling. There's not one word that suggests otherwise.

We didn't decide to make him less human, just less mature, less interior, less self-aware.

In the dialogue leading up to the song, Tibbets declares that one kind of bomb is "more humane" than another kind of bomb. That's not a mature or serious statement. And the flippant way he snaps his fingers to show how fast the bomb will end the war – he thinks it will be "humane" because of how fast "they're gone," not killed or dead, "gone." He is not grappling with this. He is not thinking seriously about any of the consequences of this, just doing his duty and winning the war.

The difference in Jeff's performance is very subtle, but it's there. And it's a lot richer than if we hadn't re-calibrated. I think this is the part of my job I find the most fun and the most interesting. When you're working on a show this good and a story this human, there's always more buried treasure just waiting to be discovered...

Come see Atomic! It's totally blowing people's minds. Pun intended.

Long Live the Musical!