Funny Girl, Whistle, and Fiddler, Oh My!

I"m very cuspy.

I was born in 1964, right on the cusp between the Baby Boomers (1946-64) and Generation X (1965-1984), though I think I'm really about 30% Boomer and 70% Gen Xer. I was also born on the cusp between Aquarius and Pisces. In fact, not long ago, some "experts" re-figured the zodiac to account for calendar errors centuries ago, and though I've always been a Pisces, in the "new" zodiac, I'm an Aquarius.

And since I'm crazy about Hair, I LOVE THAT.

I was also born on the cusp between the Rodgers & Hammerstein era (1943-1964) and the Sondheim era (arguably 1962-1994). The year I was born, Broadway welcomed a really old-fashioned book musical Funny Girl; a whacked-out Sondheim experiment (maybe the first neo musical comedy), Anyone Can Whistle; one of the last of the massive old-school musical comedy hits, Hello, Dolly!; the last of the great R&H-style shows, Fiddler on the Roof, which was also sort of a new-ish concept musical; and the pre-Broadway production of a genuine, full-throttle concept musical Man of La Mancha, which would come to New York the following year. And on top of everything else, that was the year the seriously fucked-up (sort of) musical Marat/Sade opened in London.

That was a hell of a year in musical theatre, from the most conventional to Really Fucking Weird. Very cuspy.

I founded New Line Theatre on a cusp, in 1991, after the relative wasteland of musical theatre in the 1980s and right at the front of a new move toward more personal, more artistic, less commercial -- and less Broadway-centric -- musical theatre. New Line was founded the year after Assassins debuted, before Floyd Collins, Songs for a New World, Violet, Noise/Funk, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Hedwig, A New Brain, etc.

I didn't know it then, but New Line was born right on the cusp between a Dark Ages for our art form, and the new Golden Age we still find ourselves enjoying and expanding.

And in perhaps understandable parallel to that, I find myself personally on the cusp between pre-1990 musical theatre and post-1990 theatre. I love the old shows, though as I have confessed publicly, I am just through with the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. I appreciate them for what they were and what they did, but they seem so old-fashioned, so pre-ironic, so tone-deaf to today's complex world. I can't relate to a character who sings, "Younger than springtime are you." Who is this guy? Yoda?

After all, the dream ballet in Oklahoma! was originally conceived as a circus. Laurie's torn between two men, one obviously dangerous, so she smells some smelling salts, falls asleep, and dreams of a circus? It's sorta cute that neither Dick nor Oscar thought Laurie might dream about... oh, I don't know... SEX.

But I still love most of the Jerry Herman shows, the later Lerner & Loewe shows, almost all the Kander & Ebb and Harnick & Bock shows. And you know the biggest reason why? They have irony. That's a been a part of our national culture since the 1960s, and it's a part of our national fabric now. R&H shows are conspicuously missing that, and so they seem hopelessly naive and clueless to me. But these other writers I list here all understood and artfully deployed irony throughout their work.

Still, if I had my choice between Dolly and Bat Boy, I take Bat Boy.

And yet...  It seems musical theatre artists younger than me don't know the older shows much, other than the Big Names, which means they don't know our history. And I do think that's unfortunate. As with any art form, knowing how we got here is valuable information. How can you understand Urinetown if you don't know The Threepenny Opera? How can you understand Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson if you don't know Jerry Herman and George M. Cohan? How can you understand the neo musical comedy if you don't understand classic musical comedy?

In this new Golden Age, our art form is returning to its roots and using all those classic devices but in all new ways, with the high energy and over-sized style of musical comedy, but more cynical, more ironic, more political. You can do Bat Boy without knowing My Fair Lady and Hello, Dolly!, and the audience will still enjoy it. But it will be richer, more interesting, and funnier if you do know its roots, and understand fully what the writers were up to.

Just my opinion, of course. Your mileage may vary. As a director and writer, I call upon my knowledge of musical theatre history, just as I call upon my knowledge of music theory when I write music.

I'm also on the cusp (I may be stretching the definition a bit now) between the people who take their theatre Very Seriously and those who believe they're just providing good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. First of all, I think the idea of escapism is a complete misreading of why humans love and need storytelling. Second, I think both serious intentions and fun are important. If either one is missing, you've made lesser art. I believe in a phrase I once heard in a Bob Fosse documentary: Poetry, Popcorn, and Politics. The idea is that good art, good storytelling, must contain these three elements: artistry, pure fun, and substance, in order to be fully satisfying.

Directors and actors don't always realize that shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, Cry-Baby, and so many others do indeed have all three of these elements. It's not always apparent when the shows aren't treated with respect, and the poetry and the politics get lost along the way. Our mantra at New Line is that we take the work seriously, but not ourselves. We may not always strike that balance perfectly, but it's what we aim for. We take our process seriously, but never lose the sense of joy and fun.

I suppose the New Line philosophy is cuspy itself. Our work isn't real far from the mainstream -- after all, we produce a lot of shows that at least opened on or off Broadway, even if they didn't run very long -- but our work is only occasionally and accidentally commercial. We believe in aiming for the highest of artistic excellence, but we also want to be as accessible as possible. We analyze and deconstruct the material, we have long discussions about subtext, but we never let go of a sense of joy and play.

Many of our shows are very funny and also very intense. Many of our shows tell very serious, if not tragic stories, though there are also a lot of laughs. And many of our wackiest comedies have a very serious underbelly. Almost every performance of every show, someone will walk out of the theatre after the show and say to me, "That wasn't at all what I was expecting!" And I often respond, "Well, that's what we do."

'Cause that's life, right? Life is pandemonium.

Which is why we need storytelling to make sense of it all. Which is why we need storytellers. No matter what cusp we're on.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're interested, here are other posts about my artistic life and journey...
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals
Portrait of a Boy
Suddenly There is Meaning
And as for Fortune and as for Pain
Only by Attempting the Absurd Can You Achieve the Ridiculous