It's True, So Nu?

I can't believe I've been doing musicals -- if we go all the way back to middle school -- for forty-two years. Holy shit. And directing and writing them for thirty-eight years. Hang on while I sit down a second.

The good part of that is everything I've learned -- from other people, from the shows, from many mistakes, and just from doing it. Here are a few truths that I think are important, that make me happier and make our creative process less stressful and more creative.

I hope some of them will be useful / comforting / calming to you...

Casting is rarely about who's best; it's almost always about who's right. Casting isn't about ranking, it's about putting a puzzle together, one particular puzzle. Actors have to try, hard as it is, not to take it personally. When we auditioned Rent a few years ago, we could have cast the show three times; that's how many outstanding performers we saw. But we were only hiring one cast, so a lot of great actors got turned away, all of whom we would have happily hired. I hate that, but it's the nature of the beast. I always want to send them all a note that says, "It's not you, it's me!"

Saying Thank You a lot makes everybody feel appreciated and makes me more grateful. Somebody taught me that years ago, and it almost seems magic how powerful it is. Seriously. And it feels great to be constantly expressing gratitude.

This is live theatre and shit happens. Mistakes happen. Even on Broadway. Props get forgotten or broken. Lines get missed or reversed. Costumes tear. Shit happens. Often when it happens in our shows, the actors come up to me afterward, all freaked out, apologizing. I always shrug, smile, and say, "It's live theatre." Then I ask if we know what went wrong. If we do, I drop it. If not, we figure it out.

The actors, musicians, and designers are not my employees; they are my collaborators, along with the writers! The more ownership everybody feels, and the more they contribute, the better the show. My favorite metaphor for our process is comic book art -- I pencil it in, the actors and I ink it together, then the actors and designers fill it with color. By the time we open, it's as much their creation (maybe a bit more) than it is mine. And all the while, we are literally collaborating with the composer, lyricist, and bookwriter, even if they're not actually involved in our production.

It's never good to fuck with the text. If something in the script doesn't make sense or doesn't feel right to me, it's probably because I don't understand what the writer is doing, and it's probably not because the material is flawed.

And by the way, for the sake of Mighty Thor, don't insert movie songs into the stage version!

Audiences do not only like what they know; they like what's good. If that weren't true, New Line would have gone out of business years ago. As proof, the shows people most often ask us to repeat include Return to the Forbidden Planet, Floyd Collins, Lizzie, Songs for a New World, Hands on a Hardbody, Bat BoyThe Wild Party...

Audiences do not want escape; they want connection. That's why humans need storytelling. I wrote a post about this in 2013 --
People want to connect. Escape is disconnection. People want to be reassured, even if only on a subconscious level, that they are not alone. That all their fears and insecurities and secrets are pretty much like everybody else's. That they're only freaks in the sense that everybody is a freak. . . More than anything, audiences want the truth -- human truth -- either truth they don't already know or truth they need to be reminded of.

Audiences can be passive or engaged. Engaged is better. Audiences want to go on a great ride. But a great ride doesn't let you sit back and relax! The more engaged they are, the more impact the show will have on them, and the richer their experience will be.

Audiences can read you. (If they're close enough.) Actors don't have to demonstrate a character's feelings. They just have to feel them. Humans are really great at reading human faces. That's why it's so hard to create convincing CGI humans.

Acting is (often) about just acting naturally in a fictional world. And to do that well, actors need as much information as possible about that world. A deep, full understanding of context and subtext won't be communicated directly to the audience, but it will make the actors' performances realer and richer and more detailed. I always share all my research with my cast.

Nothing is less funny than the effort to by funny. I've ranted about this a lot in my posts too --
[Some directors and actors] operate under two misconceptions. The first is that there is essentially just one kind of Funny, that Nunsense and Urinetown are fundamentally the same animal. Wrong. The second misconception is that the best way to approach comedy is to make it funny, to force it into comedy submission. Wrong again. . . Our art form has evolved so much in the last twenty years, more than during any other period in its history. But it often seems that many actors and directors haven't evolved with the art form. They approach neo musical comedies like they're all Damn Yankees. But musical comedy changed, grew up, in the mid-1990s, with Bat Boy and Urinetown, among other shows. Once upon a time, rock musicals used to be about the rock; today, neo rock musicals just use rock as their default language. Likewise, musical comedy used to be about the laughs; today, the neo musical comedy uses comedy to raise political or sociological issues.

The Fourth Wall is stupid. It's fundamentally dishonest. Plus, it never really works in a musical, because even the most "naturalistic" musicals are inherently presentational. I could rant about this for hours, but luckily, I put it all down in a blog post.

It's okay to get stumped. Sometimes I just can't figure out how to stage a moment, and I work on it and work on it, and nothing of value emerges. And then I remind myself that Sondheim wrote four final songs for Company, that Sondheim and Hal Prince and Michael Bennett were constantly restaging and reworking Follies down to the last minute. One look at all the songs cut from Broadway musicals (there's a whole series of CDs of these songs called Lost in Boston) reassures us that even the geniuses struggle, even the legends get stumped. Usually, if I let it percolate in the back of my head for a while, the answer -- or at least an answer -- comes to me. Sometimes, my solution is brilliant, sometimes it's adequate. You do what you can do. Sometimes it's imperfect. Life goes on.

Storytelling is a sacred and noble calling. Acting guru Stella Adler once said, "Unless you give the audience something that makes them bigger -- better -- do not act." Actor Ben Kingsley says, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it's all about them, when in reality it's all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you."

Musicians are performers too. Using a live three-piece band -- or even just a piano -- is always better than using fully orchestrated tracks. A live musical should have live music, because the musicians and actors feed off each other, and feel each other. What musicians do in a musical cannot be fully captured on a computer any more than a stage show can be fully captured on video. It's more than just playing notes. And parallel to that, forcing an actor to perform to recorded music is like putting a dancer in handcuffs and manacles. Just my opinion, of course.

Never doubt Larry Luckinbill. Best lesson I ever learned, no kidding. Broadway and film actor Laurence Luckinbill (husband to recent Pippin alum Lucie Arnaz) once wrote this in a letter to me: "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public’s intelligence. They will thank you for it." So that's what we do.

Our audiences prove with every show that Larry was right.

Hope these random thoughts help you along your artsy path, even if only subconsciously. My lifelong quest is to take the hassle and the stress out of making musical theatre. And yes, that's sort of an impossible dream. But these ideas really help me...

Long Live the Musical!


Aprilgirl | August 3, 2019 at 8:22 AM

This is all wonderful Scott, and not just because it echoes many of my own beliefs about (musical) theater. We need sane clear voices like yours to keep our crazy lives/careers in balance and keep us focused on WHY we do what we do, and how important that is. Thank you.