Thank You, St. Louis!

I know 2018 was a rough one in many ways, but in my position as artsy-cynic-optimist, I can't help but see a lot of awesomeness in 2018.

What a year of New Line shows! One of my most loved shows, the classic Anything Goes; the wild, new(-ish) rock musical Yeast Nation (from the Urinetown team); and my own Zombies of Penzance. Wow, talk about variety!

So many people came up to me after Anything Goes performances, saying some version of, "This has always been one of my favorite shows, but I didn't know it was so funny!" That always made me laugh. But I think it revealed something important about New Line -- we took the show seriously, its characters and plot, its themes, its satire; and what we revealed to our audiences was only what had always been there. The other secret that many directors miss -- a comedy like this is meant to keep the audience off balance, so you can't ever give them a moment to catch their breath or process the insanity before them. It was overwhelming, in all the best ways. And it was hilarious.

And Yeast Nation... well, doesn't the title say it all? I was so happy that audiences and critics embraced this crazy show, its political intrigue and social satire. We had so much fun working on this, and then Greg Kotis, one of the show's writers came to see us -- and he paid us the most amazing compliment. He said to me, "This production has really renewed my faith in the material."

Could we get a nicer compliment from a show's writer...?

And then, my beloved zombies. You have to understand, I love zombie movies, and also, I love Gilbert and Sullivan. So when the idea occurred to me in 2013, through a stoner's haze, to mashup the two forms, I knew that was something I wanted to work on.

I worked for five years, off and on, writing The Zombies of Penzance. Contrary to what some assumed, it's not just a sophomoric joke; as wacky as it is, it's a serious piece of writing. Just as The Pirates of Penzance is a sharp satire of the British class system, in a parallel way, The Zombies of Penzance is a satire of the Othering -- the cultural and political excluding -- of many, many Americans today, often practiced through a morally hazy film of faux Christian values. When I replaced pirates with zombies, replacing metaphorical monsters with actual monsters, it had far-reaching narrative ramifications, even though the larger arc of the story remained pretty much intact.

Part of the appeal of the project to me was the experiment, the fundamental mismatch of content and form that is the central joke of the show. It's a zombie apocalypse story told in the form of wacky, English light opera. And there was also the basic massive challenge of rewriting a Gilbert and Sullivan show, which I love deeply, and to make sure I was retaining Gilbert's voice. The response from audience and critics tells me I did that pretty well.

After five years, it all blossomed in 2018. We did a public reading of The Zombies of Penzance in January, and to my great surprise, we had a packed house. The amazing Sarah Nelson music directed the reading for us, the cast did a really great job with it, and the audience LOVED it. They were fully engaged with the story and characters, even though it was just a reading, with the actors holding their scores. It was so encouraging!

We had a talk-back with the audience after the reading, and I learned a lot. I was happy to find that they could easily follow the revised plot, and they understood the silly logic of the story's resolution. But I also discovered that not everybody sees zombie movies. I had assumed the audience would know the basic rules of zombism, just like everybody knows the basic rules of vampirism. But that assumption was wrong. So I addressed that in my rewrites.

Also, a few women said to me afterward, half-joking, half-not, "Couldn't the women win?" And I thought, "Yeah, why couldn't they?" So I rewrote the end, so it's the daughters who outsmart the zombies. I did a ton of rewrites, mostly small things, but also a few big things, like adding one song and greatly expanding another.

One of the biggest lessons the reading taught me -- every time I had inserted a Joke, it was less funny than the dialogue and lyrics around it. I realized I shouldn't be inserting jokes, just telling the story, because that's already funny enough. Almost all the jokes I had stuck in got removed. The only ones that stayed were jokes that came from character.

My friend and partner in crime John Gerdes meanwhile had been orchestrating the show, and had created a piano-vocal score for us to use for the reading. So after all my rewrites were done, I passed it all back to John, so he could incorporate my changes, and finish it all, write an overture, etc.

We produced the show fully in October, and again, the response was so wonderful. Sarah Nelson had moved to New York, so Nic Valdez took over as music director, and all but two of the actors returned. The reviews were raves, the laughs were huge, and everybody walked out smiling or laughing. The actors and band had a great time, all our designers did really cool work, and everything turned out exactly as I had hoped.

AND THEN... we ended up publishing the script and full piano-vocal score on Amazon! And our sound designer Ryan Day asked if he could try making a live, high-quality audio recording of the show. He did, and now we've released a really great live cast album on CD (also on Amazon). It will be on the streaming services soon.

AND THEN... we started getting inquiries about production rights. There's nothing settled yet in that area, but it looks likely that there will be further productions of our show!

And if all that isn't cool enough, while we were running Zombies, I started writing my next fake Gilbert and Sullivan show, and I finished a first draft, much to my own astonishment, before the end of the year. It's really fucked up. I'll let it sit for a while now before digging back in. If all goes as planned, we'll be doing a public reading of this one in January 2021, and then producing it in our 2021-2022 season. Stay tuned...

This was also the year I published my latest collection of analysis essays, Literally Anything Goes: 14 Great Oddball Musicals And What Makes Them Tick, and a novelty book I had been working on for several years, It's a Musical!: 400 Questions to Ponder, Discuss, and Fight About. I also published several scripts and scores I've written. (You can see them all on my Amazon Author Page.)

All in all, 2018 was a really scary year for our country, but a pretty great year for me artistically. And 2019 looks like it will be just as cool...

Thank you to everybody I worked with last year, and everybody who supports New Line. I am truly living the dream. Though it would also be nice to be able to pay my bills...

Oh well, you can't have everything.

Long Live the Musical! And Happy New Year!