Nothing Like You've Ever Known

Next week, we open Tell Me on a Sunday, Andrew Lloyd Webber's one-act, one-woman, pop musical. I haven't been blogging about it for two reasons. First, we've had a very short, very fast rehearsal process, compared to our usual. And second, I didn't direct this show.

Some of you reading this will think, Yeah, so? And others will think, Oh my god, holy shit, you must be fucking kidding me!

See, this show closes New Line's 25th anniversary season, and in all those twenty-five seasons, I directed every show. Sometimes I had an assistant director with me, but I directed every show. In large part, that's because New Line has a really specific aesthetic, that partly comes from me and partly from the way the company's work has evolved over time.

As we've explored all these brilliant, rule-busting musicals, I've learned so much from all of them. Each crazy weirdo show we produce – Night of the Living Dead, The Wild Party, Love Kills, Jerry Springer the Opera, The Nervous Set, Assassins, Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, Threepenny, Bukowsical, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Hands on a Hardbody, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson... I could keep going – each show taught me things, opened up new possibilities to me, gave me new vocabulary and tools to use, and as each of these shows met with rave reviews, they each encouraged my fearlessness.

Not to say that nobody can direct as well as me – many people are better at it than me – but there aren't many in this area who can direct this kind of work as well as I can. I have a really specific niche, but it's all I've been focused on my entire adult life, so I'm pretty good at it.

That's why I've directed every New Line show. It's like I know the code.

But not this time.

For the last several seasons, Mike Dowdy has been directing most of our shows with me. He started with us as an actor, but he's got amazing instincts as a director. It started with him making suggestions to me when he was an actor (always in private, as it should be), about other possible staging choices, stuff like that. Some of the time, his ideas were good, but not exactly what I was trying to get at. But quite often, I'd run his idea in my head, no red flags would pop up, and I'd say, "Let's try it." Easily, nine times out of ten, his idea worked really well, and it was a clear improvement.

He has such a good eye for making a moment just a little clearer. Or just a little more tense. Or just a little funnier. His ideas always come from character and story, and since he and I have remarkably similar aesthetics, it almost always meshes with what I've done around that moment.

Hang on... I'm getting to the point...

When the Kranzbergs built us the Marcelle Theater in Grand Center, our board decided to expand our season from three shows to four, and at my suggestion, we decided to ask Dowdy to direct the fourth show each season.

So for the first time in my life, I'm producing a show, but not directing it. And you know what? I like it. Part of why I like it is that I have unwavering trust in Dowdy. For the past year, he's been calling me with ideas he's had for Tell Me on a Sunday. And you know what? Every idea was great.

The other reason for my calm and comfort is we've got New Liner Sarah Porter as the lone actor in this show. Sarah's one of my favorite actors. She joined us first in bare in 2011, and though she had a small role, she really impressed me. So we kept casting her, and we found that she can do everything, from the most honest, most heartfelt emotion, to the wackiest farce, to the most straight-faced meta-comedy.

We cast her as Maureen in Rent because I had seen the revival and was surprised at how funny and charming Maureen was, even as she was selfish and mean. It really changed the character for me, complicated it, and I liked that it gave more weight to her relationship with Joanne. All I had to tell Sarah was that I really wanted Maureen to be somebody you loved hanging out with. Sarah totally delivered, but also gave her a very subtle insecurity and vulnerability.

She made Maureen so real. And the result was that, by the end of the show, it was clear that Maureen and Joanne had the most solid of the relationships in our story. I loved that.

Beyond their obvious talents and skills, Dowdy and Sarah also went to college together at Lindenwood, under the great Larry Quiggins. They know each other so well, they've played across from each other on stage many times (as a married couple in Night of the Living Dead), and they really trust each other. It's been cool for me to watch them work. I've never had a moment of worry. And that's saying a lot for a control freak like me. But I trust them as much as they trust me.

Last night at rehearsal, we did a slow, methodical tour through the score, looking for any problem spots, tweaking things, finding different choices, connecting things, all that cool stuff. It was fun to watch them doing all that, along with our intrepid music director Nate Jackson, always so easy-going, and really nailing this beautiful, though sometimes tricky, music.

To my surprise, I noticed last night that Dowdy and I had completely swapped roles. Usually, I'm the one trying to put the machine together and get it running, while Dowdy's discovering beautiful little details, asking questions that make the actors think, getting me thinking about a line reading or a metaphor, that kind of thing. But this time, Dowdy is piloting this ship, and I'm just along for the ride, asking the "Dowdy questions," and hopefully giving him the support he needs.

Watching them work last night made me feel even more secure about our show. Dowdy knows exactly what he wants, exactly how much to push Sarah and how much to protect her. And Sarah really knows this woman she's playing.

All I've got left to worry about is box office, and I think the Andrew Lloyd Webber name will sell a lot of tickets. I've discovered that, among St. Louis theatre people, the Sarah Porter name is pretty powerful too.

I think people are going to love this show. The songs are great, catchy ALW songs, but there's also a darkness and depth to the emotion that's really compelling. Emma is one fucked up young woman, and it's really fascinating to watch her find her way...

I hope you'll join us. Tell Me on a Sunday runs only three weeks, so get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!