Do You Hear That Playin'?

There are too many people doing comedy on stage who aren't funny. As they say in one of my favorite movies, Funny Bones, "Some people do funny, but some people have funny bones." Those who aren't funny only understand humor intellectually; it's not in their bones. They imitate funny.

As I've written about before, those un-funny sorts don't understand that all good humor does two things: it surprises us and it tells us the truth. Great humor does more than tell the truth; it reveals the truth. And the Second Law of Comedy is: nothing is less funny than the effort to be funny. If we can see you working hard at making us laugh, if you're begging us to laugh, that kills the laugh.

Over the first four performances of New Line's Anything Goes, people have come up to Dowdy and me both, saying almost exactly the same words: "I've always loved Anything Goes, but I don't remember it being so funny!"


First of all, you've always loved a musical comedy that wasn't very funny...?

Second, I know the songs are great, but Anything Goes would not be a very good show if it weren't funny. Third, what are these other productions doing to diminish -- ignore? -- the rowdy, wacky, subversive comedy the pervades 80% of the show? The only serious moments in the whole show are "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "All Through the Night."

One guy who saw our show commented on Facebook that ours was "first time I've seen Anything Goes where the book and lyrics were really concentrated on!"

I'll say it again. WTF?

This show isn't a revue or a paper-thin jukebox musical. It's a smart, razor-sharp satire. This plot is a masterpiece of romantic farce, as I've mentioned before, using the S.S. American as Shakespeare's Woods, where our characters escape from the rules of The City, where they can de-couple from the wrong partners and re-couple with the right ones. (There are also Shakespearean disguises and cross-dressing.) The characters are well-drawn and full of surprises, and the social satire is pointed and insightful. Americans still turn religion into show business, and we still turn criminals into celebrities. Nothing much has changed.

But why would anyone do a brilliant satirical comedy if they're going to ignore the brilliant satire? Why share the adult genius of Cole Porter's dense, hilarious lyrics -- or the rich, complex emotion of "I Get a Kick Out of You" -- if you're not going to take the time to understand them and communicate that understanding to the audience?

So many people expected us to impose something on Anything Goes, to change it, but that's not what we do. We take excellent, though often under-appreciated (and/or misunderstood) material and we treat it like it's Shakespeare, Albee, or August Wilson. We take the characters and story seriously, we research period, we research all the unfamiliar language, we get to know the artistic and pop cultural contexts of the story, we explore backstories, relationships, motivations, textual themes, all that stuff.

In other words, we take the work seriously.

If a comedy is really great, treating it this way will make it much funnier than trying to think of funny gags of your own to insert into the script, the way too many directors do. So many directors and actors think you don't have to take comedy seriously. But you do. Even the most outrageous musicals, like Little Shop, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Yeast Nation, Jerry Springer the Opera, are funnier if you take them seriously.

But you also have to get out of the way -- you can't make a great comedy funny, as too many directors and actors seem to believe; you have to let it be funny.

I'm starting to believe that our production of Anything Goes may serve as an unintentional master class in doing classic musical comedy. You don't condescend to it, you don't wink at us over its "flaws," you don't impose a phony meta-style on it, you don't "excuse" it and yourself by letting us know you know it's dumb.

No, you respect it, you follow where it leads, and it you let it work its magic.

One of my primary agendas as director was to follow George S. Kaufman's rule of comedy, to never allow silence, unless you use it; and even then, only sparingly. We have wrung nearly every pause out of this dialogue, and I think that at this breakneck pace, the satire is more pointed, the corny jokes more about character, the lyrics more playful, and the chaos so relentless, so deliciously overwhelming.

But it shouldn't be a surprise to find out Anything Goes is funny. It shouldn't be radical to treat a classic musical comedy with respect. It shouldn't be shocking for a piece of musical theatre to focus on character and story.

Look at the critical reaction so far...

"Funnier, sharper and smarter than you may remember. . . a spectacular treat for lovers of modern musical theater. . . .not to be missed. . . non-stop entertainment." -- Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Sharper, tarter and more satisfying than you'd think possible." -- Paul Friswold, Riverfront Times

"A triumph!" -- Steve Callahan, KDHX

"The entire cast of Anything Goes is simply marvelous. . . Everything about the show is extraordinary. . . New Line has yet another hit on their hands." -- Kevin Brackett, ReviewSTL

"Kicky and kooky. . . .a buoyant blast from the past that revitalizes one of the great, grand old musicals with charm, humor and style." - Lynn Venhaus, St. Louis Limelight

"It's bound to leave you with a smile on your face." -- Andrea Torrence, St. Louis Theatre Snob

"As usual, New Line gets it right. . . this is Anything Goes as it’s meant to be performed and witnessed." -- Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

"Silly comedy, stylish music and effervescent performances in a winning combination." -- Mark Bretz, Ladue News

"Energetic, smart, and very very funny. . . a sharp, witty, tuneful, and well-cast production that’s a delight from start to finish." -- Michelle Kenyon, Snoop's Theatre Thoughts

"It surely is a great deal of fun, especially if you have the least bit of romantic in you." -- Ann Pollock, St. Louis Eats and Drinks

As I have been before from time to time, I am surprised and amused that treating a great piece of theatre like a great piece of theatre is cause for celebration. Shouldn't that be a bare minimum job requirement for all of us...?

Though I can't complain, can I? Apparently, all those mediocre productions of Anything Goes in the past are just making us look brilliant. And we're selling out!

Before we opened, I wouldn't have said this, but if you haven't seen our show yet, you probably haven't seen Anything Goes as it was meant to be. So get your tickets now. We run through March 24. According to our audiences and the critics, this is an Anything Goes like you've never seen before...

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

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