Fuck the Fourth Wall

I've always found the idea of the Fourth Wall to be silly at best, and dishonest at worst. We all know there's no wall there; isn't it dishonest for the actors to pretend that a wall is there... and that the audience isn't...?

There were a lot of ways in which I wanted to explore, new ideas, new directions, new focus, when I founded New Line Theatre in 1991. One of the most obvious ways was our content, with shows like Assassins, In the Blood, Sweeney, Passion, The Ballad of Little Mikey, Floyd Collins, Jacques Brel, et al.

But we also explored, from the very beginning, the idea of space and the artificial divide between actors and audience. A lot of New Line's history has been spent playing with those ideas or shattering them altogether. And I thought it would be fun to look back over some of the fourth-wall-fucking we've done over the last twenty-six years.

I couldn't put it into words until more recently, but a big part of the impetus for starting New Line was about embracing work outside the frame of 50s musical comedy and Rodgers & Hammerstein drama. I don't think I knew exactly what I didn't like about R&H when I started New Line, but I do now. It was the deeply flawed idea that musical theatre could work as mid-century naturalistic drama, that the performance of a musical could ever be naturalistic. They created (or at least regularized) the idea of a musical internal monologue, to excuse characters singing full front to the audience; but it's a ruse. The writers and actor really are telling the audience what the character is thinking.

It's Fourth Wall breaking without the guilt.

My work with New Line has almost always been about rebelling against all of that. It's dishonest. The actors are telling us this stuff. It's called storytelling. There's nothing shameful about a soliloquy. If it was good enough for Shakespeare...

Imagine the emotional heft of Billy Bigelow directly sharing "Soliloquy" with the audience, talking with them, not just at them. Like Tevye does in Fiddler.

After hearing way too many times that the staging for The Great Comet was "ground-breaking" (it was really great, but American directors have been using staging like that since the sixties), I've been thinking about the various ways we've played with space over New Line's history, rebelling against naturalism and the proscenium. It's interesting to see how our experiments got bolder over time. It started with invading the audience's space personally, and then over time, more generally moving the show off the stage...

The very first show New Line produced was A Tribute to the Rock Musicals, which I created. It was essentially a concert tracing the history of rock musicals, with some minor staging here and there. But in looking for a new way to frame the evening, I created a Professor (played by John Gerdes, who's currently working on the music for The Zombies of Penzance for New Line), who actually gave a "lecture" on the history of the rock musical.

The actors all started in the house, quickly overcome by the opening number, dancing and singing in the aisles, then moving up onto the stage to become the "examples" of the Professor's lecture. Looking back, I can't believe I made audiences listen to a lecture, but people loved the show. We only got a couple reviews back then, but they were both very nice. At the time I was just experimenting, but I realized that the actors coming out of the audience made them the audience's surrogates, and we all "learned" together, while rocking out to some killer show tunes.

New Line's second show was a neo musical comedy I wrote called Attempting the Absurd, about an unusually self-aware twenty-something who has figured out that he's only a character in a musical. In 1992, long before [title of show]. My senior year in college, I got this idea, and my roommate and I discussed the details and the logical implications of my premise for the entire school year -- if the other characters think they're real, then they don't know they're singing. If they don't know they're singing, what is going on in their reality? When I got home, I had honed my central premise and I wrote the show.

But since the "entire world" -- everybody and everything in Jason's life -- is a musical, then the audience is part of the story too, as the musical's audience. So once again, we started the show out in the house, this time with Jason and his girlfriend arguing across the center section of the audience, and then both of them slowly moving into one row, pushing past audience members, ending up dead center between two rows (a comic device I used again fifteen years later in Urinetown). It was impossible for the audience to be passive after that. They were part of this. Throughout the show, Jason talked to the audience, although his mother sometimes asked him why he was talking to the wall. My favorite bit was right after the first big scene. Jason sits on the front of the stage and talks to the audience:
It was three things that led to my discovery that I'm only a character in a musical comedy: I have the overwhelming feeling that everything I do is controlled by someone somewhere behind a typewriter, I have only a sketchy memory of my past, and I never go to the bathroom.

(He senses disbelief in the audience.)

You laugh, but haven't you ever felt like the things that happen around you aren't real? Just couldn't be real? Kind-of set out too perfectly? Like when you pick up the phone to call somebody and they're already on the line. Hasn't that ever happened to you?

It's been two years, no – longer, three years since I started really thinking about who I am, why am I here... And then not long ago, I suddenly realized that I'm only a character in a musical. I realized that I only exist within this musical. Of course, since everyone else thinks they're real, they think I'm nuts.

(Slowly and with great import:)

See, I'm a fictional character in the Real World, while all the people around me are real people in a fictional world.

(A long pause while he lets it sink in. He smiles. He knows how confusing he sounds.)

I bet you'd give anything to see Hello Dolly! right about now, wouldn't you..? Musicals used to be so neat and tidy... Ever since Sondheim, it's been all… downhill...

Eventually, Jason is arrested, for generally being crazy, and the charges are dismissed when Jason presents the Judge with the script for Attempting the Absurd.

I was meta before meta was cool. In case you're wondering, the title came from a line in the show, "Only by attempting the absurd can you achieve the ridiculous." The perfect title for this show.

Our fourth season, we did Pippin, with a woman as Leading Player, back in 1995 before that was trendy. We were in the St. Marcus, a theatre in a church basement. We built a runway off the front of the stage, out through the house to the back, and we used it a lot. The St. Marcus was a perfect place for this show, seating about 150, with the front row about three feet from the stage. It was really intense, really freaky.

I was particularly proud of some of the moments I created in that show. My favorite was the opening. The house went to black, and a pinspot came up slowly on Pippin, out on the runway, in the middle of the house. He takes a breath and raises his hand -- which is holding a gun -- up to his temple. He closes his eyes... and that note fades in... and he looks around... and "Magic to Do" starts. He slowly turns around and sees the Players emerging from the darkness...

What I loved about that moment was that it was incredibly intense, which gave the whole evening some serious balls, but it also set up the show's climax, when Leading Player tells the audience, "Why, we're right inside your head." This whole story has happened in Pippin's mind, so the Grand Finale is, by definition, suicide. I'm not sure audiences always get that, and I think this helped.

We produced Sweeney Todd in 1996, and for the first time, we did something I had been wanting to do for years. We used the entire theatre, including the audience, as the environment for our story. I had read an interview with Sondheim, in which he said he had wanted Sweeney to be a small, chamber musical, with the actors popping up behind the audience, scaring the crap out of them. I loved that idea!

So for our production, the aisles became the streets of London. Because we were in a basement theatre, there were support poles in the audience, and we dressed them all up as streetlamps. In addition to the small permanent stage at the St. Marcus, we built two satellite stages; and two of these three stages had revolves. Each time the chorus would sing "City on Fire," they would literally be inches behind the back row of the audience.

It was so much fun, and people really loved the intensity of it. The show became a real horror show again, instead of ironic social commentary.

In 1999, we did Into the Woods in much the same way, but going even further, this time setting a cross-aisle halfway through the audience, and again using all the aisles as paths in the woods, and now dressing up those poles as trees. Every time the cast would do the aphorisms, they'd all be walking briskly up and down the aisles, through the cross-aisle, behind the back row. It was completely stereophonic, and there was so much to look at.

As we did with Sweeney, we played big hunks of the show out in the house. One of my favorite moments evolved out of a problem. Our cast was slightly smaller than the original, and after Jack's Mother is conked on the head -- in the middle of our cross-aisle -- I needed the Steward to help carry her out of the way. But the Steward was holding the royal staff. So we decided he had to get rid of the staff somehow. Our solution was that he would slide it under the chairs in the front row, then whisper to whoever was on the end, "Say nothing or you're next!" The reactions were wonderful.

We don't usually do what you'd call "immersive" theatre, but every once in a while, there's a moment that comes close.

Another "close moment" was right before the finale of Assassins. This was our second production of the show, and we staged it in the round, each section of audience only four rows deep. It was So Intense. Byck threw his hamburger out "the window" over the heads of the audience. This was before the show had "Something Just Broke" added. So we finished the book depository scene, that amazing vocal counterpoint segues into the Copland-esque instrumental, and all the assassins went into the house, each addressing just a handful of people, each assassin privately telling that handful of people why he or she had to do it. The last to finish was always Guiteau, so as this weird, soft cacophony ended, we'd hear Guiteau hissing, "I did it for you! I did it for you!" And they all left the space as the music transitioned to "Everybody's Got the Right." It was one of the creepiest things we had ever done, and it really unnerved people.

With Floyd Collins, also in 1999, we kept the show onstage almost the whole time, with one exception when Floyd's down in the cave and he sings his cave calls. We placed the other actors all around the audience to sing Floyd's multiple echos. It was a really wonderful effect.

It's not really fair to say we rejected the Fourth Wall when we did Hair, since it never had a Fourth Wall to begin with. As I said to many people about Hair, it's not a show, not a performance, as much as just a happening, an experience. Every night before the show even started, our tribe was out in the house, greeting the audience and passing out daisies (as the original production had done). They spent a lot of time in the audience during the show, and at the end (again, like the original), they invited the audience onto the stage to dance. You'd be amazed how many people did. There was never a divide between actors and audience. The whole space was open to us. It was so freeing.

Then we moved into the ArtLoft Theatre in 2001. It was our first time in a blackbox, and it was like someone had just taught me to fly...

One of my favorite experiments was our 2001 production of the 1937 labor musical The Cradle Will Rock. Our production recreated the show's real opening night -- when the government had shut it down, the producers had found another theatre, and then the whole audience walked twenty-one blocks uptown to the other theatre. But the actors' union forbade them from appearing onstage, so much of the cast performed the show anyway, but from the audience. You can hear original producer John Houseman tell that amazing opening night story here.

My director's notes in our program for Cradle gave the audience its backstory, that they had just walked twenty-one blocks uptown, etc. Then Orson Welles greeted the audience and introduced me as composer Marc Blitzstein, to play his/my show from the stage. As it happened in 1937, just a few notes in, an actor stood up in the house and started singing, and soon the entire show was playing out in the audience. It was really thrilling theatre.

For both Bat Boy in 2003 and 2006, and Urinetown in 2007, we returned to the idea of playing lots of the show out in the house, in the aisles, between rows. You can watch our Urinetown Act I finale here, to see how much fun we had. I remember during that run, I watched most of the show from the booth upstairs, because it was a great view, but I always came downstairs into the back of the house for the Act I finale, because it was so wild, it just left you breathless.

Another interesting experiment was our Sunday in the Park with George in 2003. I had this idea to create something close to the two-dimensional world of the painting. So we built a stage eight feet wide by thirty-two feet long, down the middle of the theatre, with audience on both sides, facing each other. I almost gave up on the idea in blocking rehearsals -- it's incredibly hard to block on a stage like that -- but we figured it out. And the final effect was very cool.

In case you're wondering, the "painting" reversed between the Act I finale and the Act II opening, so both sides got a good look at the painting.

When we did Man of La Mancha in 2004 we built a small 16' x 16' stage in the middle of the space, and made it look as old and gross possible, and we made the entire theatre space (an old warehouse, which was perfect) into our dungeon, with the audience on all four sides. During the show, the entire cast sat around the stage watching when they weren't in the story. And because the front row of audience was only a couple feet behind the "prisoners," it pulled the audience into the action really powerfully, bringing them into the dungeon with us. It also made the rape scene very hard to watch. The one time the ensemble disappeared (gradually slipping underneath the stage) was for "The Quest," so Quixote could really be alone in the courtyard.

Our Robber Bridegroom and The Fantasticks, both in 2005, followed in our experiments with Bat Boy and Urinetown, playing all over the theatre throughout the whole show. It was fun thinking about the implications of playing out in the audience so much. Different people sitting in different places see different shows. We decided to embrace that and added lots of little details that only a handful of people could see or hear, depending on where they're sitting -- and that prompted a lot of repeat customers.

We left the ArtLoft in 2007, after Urinetown. For seven years we were at the Washington University South Campus Theatre, which was very nice, but after seven years in a blackbox, it felt a bit constraining sometimes. Now we're back in a blackbox at the Marcelle, and we've having lots of fun with it.

It's been so much fun and so educational having this wonderful laboratory -- our company -- in which to experiment with our art form, particularly now in this new Golden Age, when the material is so often extraordinary. So far, we've tried four different configurations in our first two seasons at the Marcelle.  My favorite so far was Atomic, with the playing space down the middle, and audience on both sides, watching this show about America's creation of the Bomb, with other Americans as a backdrop. Pretty cool.

Our next show, Lizzie, is another piece that fucks with the Fourth Wall. The actors won't leave the stage, but the show is a kind of hybrid of rock concert and rock opera, and much of it works best full front, directly singing to the audience. But there are also dramatic scenes, in which there's a vague sense of a fragile Fourth Wall. The toggle between the two is really interesting, and it makes for some intense storytelling!

New Line is not an "experimental" company. We're not "avant garde." The label I use is "alternative musical theatre," in other words, not mainstream, but not way outside, just different, alternative. But we have experimented a lot over our past twenty-six seasons, and I'm sure there will be plenty more cool experiments to come.

Stay tuned. And don't miss Lizzie!

Long Live the Musical!