Johnny Appleweed, Dracula, and Jill Conner Browne Walk Into a Bar...

This may be the wildest, weirdest, most varied season of musicals New Line Theatre has produced in more than three decades of producing wild and weird musical theatre. These three shows could not be more different from each other, and yet, all three shows are about The Other, The Outsider. And more sublimi­nally, all three are about the Culture Wars too.

Programming a season for a theatre company is really hard work, even after thirty-one years of doing it. There are so many considerations, so many pressures and cross-pressures; and right now, as we continue to slog through the still lingering effects of the pandemic on the performing arts, money (sales, grants, donations, etc.) is even more a consideration than usual. Usually, money is a factor, but not a big one.

We constantly talk about shows we'd like to do, and some of them seem perfect for the moment, but then the moment passes and we find ourselves in a new moment. But over months of talking, the right shows seem to settle into their slots. Sometimes that happens as early as December, even though we won't announce it for months. Sometimes it happens a week before we announce.

The coming 2023-2024 season will be New Line's thirty-second season, can you believe it? Doing the shit we do? For this season, the three shows that eventually settled into our three slots all came to us in different ways, so it's a good example of how we stumble toward a season each year.

And BTW, you can order season tickets right now -- just click here!

Our fall show will be a brand new musical, in a new calendar slot for us, and in a new theatre for us! It's a show I wrote, now re-titled Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas. I started writing it in fall 2021. It started with just a title, Reefer Madness Christmas, which I later learned I can't use (long story!), but it was still a potent catalyst for my crazy, subversive ideas. We'll be doing the show at the Grandel Theatre, in late November and early December.

I had been thinking for a long time about two ideas for musical writing projects; one was a sequel to my 2006 show Johnny Appleweed (OMG, so many ideas for that!), and the other idea was a show about men like my father and Mad Men's Don Draper, men who felt comfortable and in control during the conforming 1950s, but baffled, lost, out of control, and hostile during the cultural and political revolutions of the 1960s and 70s. (As I've written several times before, our politics are still stuck in an epic battle between the conservative 1950s and the progressive 1960s.)

So as the idea worked itself around in my head -- I call this stage of my process the percolating -- certain details started to emerge that stuck with me. I decided it would be set on Christmas Eve 1959, right at the turning point of the 1960s. It's a good symbolic date, but it also syncs up my story with Grease, set during the 1958-59 school years. There's an excellent book about the huge changes and events of just that one year, 1959.

Then I decided my story wouldn't be a fake anti-drug story like the Reefer Madness musical; my story would be an openly pro-pot story. So that led me to a midwestern nuclear, sitcom-friendly family, all of whom use pot (secretly) except for the father. But that still wasn't a story; just a funny situation. After lots more percolation, it hit me. One other idea I had toyed with, was a new version of A Christmas Carol. So Act I of my story would be the family's revelations, each to the father's greater horror; and then Act II would be a new, pro-pot, stoner version of A Christmas Carol. But what lesson would the father have to learn?

Soon, I had filled out my scenario. The part of Jacob Marley in Dickens' version became a rock and roll, pot-smoking Jesus, the father's greatest nightmare. For the three ghosts, I eventually settled on three of the craziest visitors I could think of, who could also teach the farther a real lesson. First, we meet the father's dead twin brother Gerald, who was absorbed in the uterus. Next up is an alcoholic and belligerent Sandra Dee. And batting cleanup, the itinerant stoner, the one and only Johnny Appleweed, singing the showstopper, "(Take Out) That Stick Up Your Ass."

I started writing in earnest in October 2021 -- and yes, since I know you're wondering, I wrote it completely under the influence of God's Goofy Green Goodness -- and only in the last couple weeks, have I gotten the script and score in good enough shape to go into rehearsal. There will no doubt be changes as we rehearse too. I think what I love most about it, is that it operates like a John Waters movie -- the "good guy" (the morally straight father) is the antagonist, and the "bad guys" (pot smokers) are the heroes. This time, the character who conforms to conventional social norms is The Other. He is the one who has to learn and change.

The songs include “The Elves Get Stoned,” “Heteronormative,” “Mary Jane and Mary Jane,” “Love Doesn’t Suck,” “Hoo-Hoo of Steel,” “Man in the Gray Flannel Life,” “Don’t Look at Me! I’m Sandra Dee!”, “That Stick Up Your Ass,” “Better Living Through Chemistry,” “Have Another Toke and Have a Merry Christmas,” and other future holiday classics.

To read more about Jesus and Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas, click here.

The second show in our season, Sweet Potato Queens®, is a musical I'd never heard of -- and that doesn't happen all that often! One of our New Line Subscribers, Debra Lueckerath, had seen the show in Los Angeles, and she brought me the program, adamantly urging me to check it out. For a while, that program just sat on my desk, like most things do. But at some point, I picked it up, looked through it, and then Googled "Sweet Potato Queens" and holy shit!

I found the original SPQ website and discovered the amazing Jill Conner Browne. The more I read, the more I listened to and watched clips, I discovered this quirky show was really crazy, really heartfelt, and really New Liney. Just like Jill. Once again, the Others take centerstage. I love that.

So I got the script to read and the piano score to play through and it charmed the shit out of me and made me laugh out loud repeatedly, and yet it also has some very serious, human stuff running underneath the wacky carnival.

The creative team's cred is solid. Broadway veteran Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) wrote the script, and hit country songwriter Sharon Vaughn wrote the lyrics. The music is by pop icon Melissa Manchester, and the songs are really fun to play. It's Southern Rock, dirty blues, gospel, country, funk, soul, swing, waltz, Hawaiian, some lovely Broadway ballads, and something ironically called "Sears Rock." You can imagine what a blast it all is! 

Makes me thankful yet again they made me take piano lessons at age four.

To read more about Sweet Potato Queensclick here.

The third show in our season is yet more proof that commercial success on Broadway is not the same thing as artistic quality. Over the years, New Line has "rescued" several shows that were very badly served by their Broadway productions. The outstanding High Fidelity would be long forgotten by now, if New Line hadn't brought it back to life and proved how good it really is, despite its clumsy and clueless Broadway production. The same is true of Cry-Baby, so badly misdirected in New York; but utterly redeemed by New Line's sold-out, critically acclaimed production.

So many quality musicals are commercial flops in New York but huge successes for New Line, including Bonnie & Clyde, Hands on a Hardbody, Heathers, Bat Boy, Floyd Collins, The Story of My Life, Reefer Madness, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and quite a few more. One of the great joys of our work is that other small regional companies watch us, and once we prove a New York "flop" is really a great show, productions pop up around the country. That delights me.

But I confess that I often forget my own lesson. When we're thinking about choosing musicals for the coming season, I often dismiss the shows that have been big epic flops in New York, even though I know I shouldn't.

That happened to me again with Frank Wildhorn's Dracula.

We produced Wildhorn's Bonnie & Clyde in 2014, and both shows have lyrics by Don Black, who also wrote the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me on a Sunday, which we produced in 2016. And yet, despite my love for vampires and musicals, I had never really paid much attention to Dracula the musical. My bad. 

Until one of our actors, Cole Gutmann, brought it up during our run of Nine. Luckily for me and New Line, Cole pestered me till I promised to listen to it. And then I did. And I loved it. And I read the script and played through the score, and I loved it.

The show is unusually faithful to the novel in most ways, but the stage story departs from the source in one important way. In Wildhorn's Dracula, the one who's usually seen as The Other, Dracula himself, is the protagonist, the lover! The elements of horror and thriller are present, but the story is of a tragic, impossible (star-crossed?) love. It's the only way to make this story work well as a musical, an inherently emotional storytelling form. Like Sondheim did with Sweeney Todd, Wildhorn uses music in Dracula to create suspense, ambiguity, subtext, tension, momentum. Though there is dialogue, the music rarely stops, much like a film score.

Normally in the story, Mina is torn between her love for Jonathan and the psychic power Dracula holds over her. But in this retelling, Mina is torn between her love for Jonathan and her love for Dracula. It raises the stakes considerably and brings the story into a more emotional and more sexual realm. Horror is always about a violation of the human body; here that violation becomes something else, something more ambiguous, something more complex. Dracula doesn't just want Mina; he loves her.

Now, that's a vampire of a different color. Actually, it's more in line with Gary Oldman's Dracula, now that I think about it.

I love horror. I've read dozens of horror novels, seen hundreds of horror movies, and I've written some horror too. I wrote Gilbert & Sullivan's The Zombies of Penzance, which New Line debuted in 2018, and I've also written a collection of "weird fiction" called Night of the Living Show Tunes. In fact, I've already got enough other ideas for a couple more collections like that one. New Line produced a musical­ized Night of the Living Dead in 2013. And back in the mid-1990s, I wrote a gay vampire musical called In the Blood, which New Line produced, and then later I novelized it, as an artistic experiment.

So I was positively giddy to discover that even though Dracula was a commercial flop in New York, it's a terrific, deeply emotional piece of musical theatre! Wildhorn is known for the operatic scale of his music, even though his musical language is pop, rock, country, and jazz. That's exactly the scale this story needs. One of the secret powers of horror, whether on the page, on the stage, or on the screen, is that the stakes can't possibly be any higher, literally life or death, and that's incredibly dramatic and compelling. Notice how many TV series are about doctors and police -- it's all life and death.

To read more about Dracula, click here.

And just so you don't have to scroll back up to find it, for season tickets, just click here. (Aren't I considerate?) And if you don't want to order online, you can print out the order form here, and mail it in with a check.

For info on auditions for next season, on June 12 and 19, click here.

And meanwhile, while we've been closing one show, getting ready to start rehearsals for another, and settling, organizing, and announcing all our season info... I've also been working on a new book, which I have finished just in time to start rehearsals for Forum. It's the second book in what will eventually be a four-book series, The ABCs of Acting in Musicals. Check it out!

An artsy's work is never done. Thank Zeus!

I can't wait to share all this amazing theatre with our audiences! 

Long Live the Musical!