Rock & roll and the musical are uniquely American inventions. Both place a greater value on expression than on technique, both seek to connect with audiences on a deeply personal level and both are best experienced in a live setting.
But while rock & roll has weathered changing musical tastes and technological advances in format and audience consumption, the musical has suffered a serious loss of cultural standing since the 1960s, which just so happens to coincide with rock's rise to prominence. No longer do songs from the newest shows track on the Billboard charts; there is no modern equivalent to Ed Sullivan, who gladly presented entire scenes of current Broadway musicals on TV so wary audiences could get a taste before they committed to buying tickets.
And yet the musical survives. And in St. Louis, Scott Miller works tirelessly to see that the musical thrives.
Twenty-five years ago Miller founded New Line Theatre, the only professional company in St. Louis (aside from the Muny) dedicated to producing a full season of musicals. And not just musicals — rock musicals. While Miller enjoys the classics from the Golden Age of Musicals such as South Pacific and My Fair Lady, his real loves are the more modern shows about sexuality, the counterculture and the freaks, geeks and weirdos living on the front lines of the culture wars. He likes his shows loud, fast and a little crass, but he also wants a musical that has something to say about who we are and what's happening right now. Give Miller Hair and he'll show you the spirit of renewal that powers the world; give him Bat Boy and he'll show you the monster hiding inside you.
This fall, New Line Theatre will stage its 75th production — the regional premiere of Heathers, based on the Winona Ryder/Christian Slater film. The three other shows in the 2015-2016 season are all either St. Louis premieres (American Idiot and Tell Me on a Sunday) or American regional premieres (Atomic).
Miller can risk a season of new shows because he has built an audience that expects adventurous, even challenging musicals. New Line has won a national reputation not just for launching new productions, but for saving shows that have been savaged on Broadway. Miller and company revived High Fidelity in 2008 as a viable musical for regional and college theaters, and New Line's 2012 staging of John Waters' Cry-Baby was received with near-universal acclaim.
Even so, this season will be different. For the first time in New Line's history, Miller will not be directing one of those shows: Mike Dowdy, Miller's co-artistic director for the past several seasons, will be the sole director of Tell Me on a Sunday.
But perhaps even more importantly is a big change to the theater itself: Miller and the rest of the New Liners are about to begin the process of moving into the brand-new Marcelle Theater in Grand Center.
For most St. Louis companies, theater space is at a premium. While the relatively recent arrivals of the Gaslight Theater and Tower Grove Abbey have provided much-needed options, the lack of good, reliable performance space is persistent and demands a certain amount of resourcefulness on the part of each artistic director. How can you plan a season if you don't know how big next year's stage will be?
In the past 25 years, Miller has produced top notch musical theater in church basements, down-at-the-heels shared spaces and the occasional college black box. None of them has offered any permanence, which means every few years he's spent the off-season trying to wrangle a functional place with an affordable lease.
The Marcelle is a game changer. Scott Miller has traveled a long road to get to this point, but the soundtrack has been phenomenal.
So immersed is Scott Miller in musical theater that he can't recall a time when Broadway shows didn't provide the soundtrack to his life.
"My earliest memories are dozens of shows," he laughs. "Way back before I can remember, I was a musical-theater freak. I saw one Muny show a year with my family, and my parents' record collection was mostly show tunes and cast albums, with a little Percy Sledge mixed in."
Young Scott watched his older brothers perform in their high school musicals, which helped fan the flames of his passion. His parents also gave him the gift of music lessons from an early age. "They started me on piano when I was four, so I learned to read music at the same time I learned to read words," Miller says. "And to keep me interested, my piano lesson each week always included a show tune."
Miller, still a sandy blond at 51, is a St. Louis native. His father was a plant manager for a vending machine manufacturing company, and his mother was a homemaker. After his parents divorced, she went back to work as the secretary to the chief of police in Webster Groves. When he was sixteen he got a job as a Muny usher. He returned to the outdoor theater every summer for the next seven years.
"It was an amazing education. I saw shows like Joe Namath and Misty Rowe in Li'l Abner" — a 1980 production perhaps hampered by Namath's acting, singing and dancing abilities. Here Miller chuckles slyly and shares an anecdote about this particular show that is brutally funny — and sadly off the record. He's too professional to dish publicly, but also too enamored of theater lore to resist passing along juicy tidbits covertly.
While his childhood is a mishmash of Golden Age shows, one musical performed in the late '70s stands out in Miller's memory as a signal moment in his life.
"When I was in junior high, the high school did a production of Godspell. They brought a one-hour preview of the show to our school in an attempt to drum up ticket sales, and it blew my mind. Everything about it, it really appealed to me."
Stephen Schwartz's musical based on the Gospel of St. Matthew is tonally a far cry from later Miller favorites such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but in terms of message and music, they make a matching set. Both are about an outsider who sings the praises of love, and both use the popular music of their eras (the symphonic rock of the '70s and the post-punk sounds of the late '90s) to frame their stories.
And it was Godspell's songs that really struck Miller.
"I went to the high school to see the full production," Miller's eyes shine as he pauses to remember the night his life expanded into a new dimension. "I loved it. I came down from my room at 11:30 that night and asked my mom to take me to Peaches" — the legendary record-store chain that had 40-odd stores coast-to-coast in the '70s — "to buy the cast album. So, there we were at midnight in Peaches..."
He was introduced to Richard O'Brien's cult masterpiece The Rocky Horror Picture Show while at Affton High School, along with Grease, another show to which Miller pledges his undying love. By this time he knew making musical theater would be his life's work, but he didn't know exactly how he would make it.
"I originally wanted to be an actor. In my junior year we had a class called Theater Arts. The teacher said, 'It'd be great if one of the students would write a play we could do.'" Miller thought he could be that student. "I wrote a musical, Adam's Apple, which was about a dork who loves a bad girl but who ends up with the good girl."
For Miller, this initial attempt at writing altered his direction. "That play was maybe the start," he muses. He continued to act when he headed off to Harvard (he earned a degree in music and musical theater), but the appeal of being involved behind the scenes was growing.
Miller returned home from Harvard when his high school drama teacher, Judy Rethwisch, invited him to perform in an alumni show. Not that there was much doubt about where he would end up after college.
"I never had the desire to work in the commercial musical theater in New York," Miller says. "I'd never be able to do there what I can do here, in terms of taking risks, doing weird and/or challenging shows."
The alumni production was successful enough that it led to the founding of CenterStage Theatre Company, which Miller helped run. "We did Best Little Whorehouse, but also No, No, Nanette," Miller says. He describes the work he produced and directed there as "good but safe musical theatre" in his book You Could Drive a Person Crazy: Chronicle of an American Theatre Company. (Miller has written five books about making, consuming and understanding musical theater; Strike Up the Band, his history of alternative musicals from the 1900s to the start of the 21st century, is highly recommended.)
Armed with the show-biz business acumen he learned at his day job in the administrative office at Dance St. Louis, Miller struck out on his own with the launch of New Line Theatre in 1991. The first show was the world premiere of A Tribute to the Rock Musicals. It was a calculated beginning.
"Tribute was assembled out of my favorite songs from rock musicals. I knew I needed to do cost-nothing shows that would sell a lot of tickets, and this seemed the best fit."
The early years were peripatetic. New Line produced shows at COCA, then moved to the New City School before landing at the St. Marcus United Church of Christ in Benton Park for a multi-year stretch. It was a shared space, with Joan Lipkin's Uppity Theatre Company and the late Christopher Jackson's CJ Production presenting what Miller glowingly calls "radical gay theater." So radical, in fact, that Jackson's graphic musical South Beach, about the man who killed fashion designer Gianni Versace, upset the congregation to the point that the pastor resigned and all three companies were summarily booted out.
For actress Kimi Short, the St. Marcus was where she began her association with New Line Theatre, which continues to this day (she was in all three New Line shows last season). She remembers it as "a tiny basement theater with support columns in the audience several feet from the front of the stage."
A brunette belter who starred as the put-upon Laura in both of New Line's High Fidelity productions, Short began her stage career on the Goldenrod showboat in a 1994 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but her life was changed by a New Line show. "The first New Line show I saw was Assassins. I never left a theater so excited about what I had seen. I was like, 'Yeah, that's it, that's the way it's supposed to be. I want to do that!'"
Miller also cites early productions of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins (first in '94 and again in '97) as being pivotal in New Line's and his own history. The musical lets the men and women who have succeeded at killing American presidents — and those who failed, but made an honest effort all the same — express their fury with the political system, the American dream and life in general. It is a dark, bleakly comic show about the violence baked into our country, and how we are powerless to stop that violence from erupting. (See everything that's happened since the show's debut.) Assassins is the archetypical New Line show, a smart black comedy that will scare the shit out of you if you're really listening to it.
"We did Assassins the second the rights were available," Miller recalls. "I learned a big lesson while we were working on it: If you refuse to be scared about the audience and just worry about being great, they'll go with you."
And go they did. "By the time we left the St. Marcus [in 1997], we had our audience. We were looking for new shows that no one in St. Louis had done before."
A decade later, New Line ended the season deeper in the red than ever before. The company's most recent home, the much-missed ArtLoft Theater in the 1500 block of Washington Avenue, was a fantastically versatile space that housed numerous New Line triumphs — Hair, Cabaret and the regional premiere of Floyd Collins among them.
But in 2007, a nationwide economic crunch cut into ticket sales all over town. The opening show of the season, Johnny Appleweed, was a riff on the Johnny Appleseed story with a hero who planted marijuana across the country. Miller wrote the show himself. It got good reviews, but Johnny never really struck a chord with audiences, and even following it with Grease and Urinetown failed to make up the difference.
"We lose money on every show, that's just how it works," Miller states matter-of-factly. "We'll end every season $2,000 to $3,000 in the hole. In '06-'07, we were $19,000 in the hole."
That shortfall, coupled with the fact that the ArtLoft was plagued by code violations that eventually forced its closure, meant Miller and company had to go looking for a new home. Only some timely financial aid from the Regional Arts Commission allowed New Line to continue.
"In most cases, to retire the debt, we just make sure we're super-careful with expenses and find additional [or bigger donations]," Miller explains. "In two cases, including the '06-Æ07 season, the Regional Arts Commission gave us a loan to keep New Line open, but both times we repaid the loan in less than a year and got back on our feet. One of the ways we're working on that recurring problem is finding 'sponsors' for each show, and we're having some success with that."
After a tumultuous and draining year, the new Ivory Theatre seemed like the long-term answer to New Line's nomadic existence. The former St. Boniface Catholic Church in Carondelet had closed in 2005 and was sold two years later by the archdiocese for slightly more than $1 million to property developer Pete Rothschild. It appeared to be the perfect home for New Line, as well as the NonProphet Theatrer Company and Hydeware Theatre.
But after moving in, all three companies were rankled by the limited facilities (there was only one restroom available, and it was in the lobby), the stage's floor-mounted raised electrical sockets and purported unprofessional treatment from the theater manager. The situation devolved into a he-said, she-said argument between the artists and building manager that included accusations of sets being damaged by the Ivory's personnel and, in one instance, an agreed-upon rent reduction being ignored.
At the time Miller bluntly told the RFT, "The Ivory had no one involved in any aspect who understood theater." (The Ivory is now under different management, and is seemingly chugging along nicely during St. Louis Shakespeare's current season there.)
But even before New Line could mount its first production at the Ivory, the musical revue Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll, the Archdiocese of St. Louis attained a court order to stop the show. The church's concern was that the revue violated a covenant forbidding "adult entertainment" at the former parish.
Opening night was cancelled and the rest of the run was in doubt until Miller and Monsignor Vernon Gardin together watched a rehearsal tape of the show; the production was determined to not be in violation of the covenant, and the show eventually opened. But as Miller wryly told the RFT at the time, "I don't think the monsignor would have liked our show...with these songs about threesomes and STDs and musical orgasms."
If you were looking for a Twitter-length bio that sums up New Line Theatre, that sentence would do nicely.
New Line hightailed it out of the Ivory after a production of Assassins (what else?) and worked out a hasty arrangement with Washington University to use the Edison Black Box Theater for the final show of the 2007-2008 season: High Fidelity.
The show, with book by David Lindsay-Abaire, music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Amanda Green, was based on Stephen Frears' film, which was itself adapted from Nick Hornby's novel. The story of Rob, a record-store owner who makes endless "top five" lists and argues with his staff rather than engaging emotionally with his girlfriend — or anyone else — had tanked hard on Broadway, barely eking out thirteen shows. That was no deterrent to Miller.
"I found Tom Kitt's band page online and contacted him," he says, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to ask someone pointed questions about their Broadway flop. "We talked about the show, and he sent me the script. I loved it. He sent us the band books, and we were off."
By "off," Miller means he went into one of his patented deep dives, reading and listening to every iota of information about the musical, the film, the novel and the music that serves as Rob's surrogate for an emotional life.
If you head to the New Line website (www.newlinetheatre.com), you can enjoy the fruits of Miller's labors. His page for High Fidelity begins with a link to the original cast album and runs through links to a documentary about independent record stores, his own background essay and thoughts about the show, where to buy Michael Chabon's novel Telegraph Avenue (because it's set in a record store) and a final link to a boutique website that can tell you the No. 1 song on the day you were born. Many of the shows in New Line's production history have similar pages.
"Scott's production process, from auditions to performance, has always been a well-oiled machine," Short says.
"I'm a disciple of musical theater," is his own explanation.
The disciple successfully raised the dead with High Fidelity. Miller scaled down Broadway's excesses and filtered the entire production through Rob's emotionally stunted head. From the opening number to almost the very end of the show, Rob and Laura are isolated from each other physically while Rob stumbles from work to home, thinking only about music.
Miller cast Jeffrey Wright as the rumpled, withdrawn Rob, and gave Short the task of playing the under-appreciated Laura.
It was inspired casting. Wright has regular-guy good looks, a great voice and what Miller calls a gift for "playing assholes. Jeff's the nicest guy, which makes it easy to like him when he's up there being a dick."
In Miller's hands, the big-budget flop was transformed into a tough and lean coming-of-age story about a guy who just cannot commit to caring about anything that isn't on vinyl, but who eventually makes a tentative first step into a loving, adult relationship.
I reviewed the show for the RFT and gave it a glowing write-up. Miller nevertheless emailed me to ask me to explain why I thought the character of Laura was underwritten. I never convinced him of my argument, and in fact I eventually swung around to agree with him. When he's right, he's right.
So right, in fact, that other regional theaters soon approached Miller to find out how they could mount a production of High Fidelity. What floundered on Broadway was now a legitimate and perhaps unlikely success story.
Miller did it again in 2011 with John Waters' Cry-Baby, which suffered its own ignominious short run on Broadway. Once again Miller obtained the rights for the show's first regional production, and set about working his magic. He pared down the sets, reduced the Musicians Guild-mandated big Broadway orchestra to a tight 'n' hard-rocking six-piece band, and embraced the subversive charms of the show's early rock & roll, sweaty teen delinquents and its story line about a good girl who rebels against the system. New Line's Cry-Baby was fast, funny and trenchant in its insights about the sexual rebellion that was already bubbling below the surface of 1950s America. It, too, has become an in-demand production on a national level thanks to Miller's jump-start.
Not every show New Line takes on works as well. In 2009, Miller negotiated the rights for the world premiere of Kyle Jarrow's Love Kills, a musical based on the lives of spree-killer Charles Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. It was a stark, fascinating show about violence, the aimless feelings of meaninglessness endemic among teenagers and love.
I loved it, unreservedly and completely. Miller's staging, and the blistering performances by all four actors, made it a top-three lifetime show as far as I'm concerned.
Audiences stayed away, and the unexpected death of the band's guitarist necessitated the cancellation of the final week of shows. "Love Kills was maybe too much for our audience," Miller says now. "We expected it to sell poorly."
But don't mistake that statement for a concession. Miller is steadfast in his commitment to new plays that jangle the nerves, rile the blood and make people squirm in their seats.
"New Line is about people seeing great musicals, not selling tickets."
The Marcelle Theater is proof that Miller's commitment to the art form is not misplaced, and that his belief in the audience's intelligence is justified. After all, it's through the generosity of two audience members that the company has found itself with a space all its own, at long last.
"Ken and Nancy Kranzberg have been a part of our audience for years," Miller explains. The noted philanthropists support numerous St. Louis arts groups, and see the value of having New Line Theatre as a prominent part of the community.
"Every once in a while I'd approach them about a new theater. Ken eventually contacted me and said he had a building that would work." It's a former warehouse in Grand Center, officially located at 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, just east of Grand Boulevard. One half of the space is now a black-box theater, and the other half serves as storage for scenery, props and all the other equipment a company needs to mount a show.
New Line will share the space with other companies, and Miller's company is not getting a free ride — it pays rent, the same as anyone else. Miller will only concede that it's about what they were paying at New Line's most recent home, the Washington University South Campus Theatre. If New Line is the beneficiary of its long relationship with the Kranzbergs in any regard, it is in the choice of the project architect: Rob Lippert got the contract, and he has also worked as New Line's lighting and scenic designer for the past few years.
Miller is taking advantage of the new location by increasing the number of shows to four this season. A three-show season is "perfect," he says, but "with the new space, this is a chance to bring in new people. If four shows in the black box work, we'll think about keeping it up there."
Of course, Miller is only directing three of them. Mike Dowdy, who first started working with New Line in 2008's Return to the Forbidden Planet, will step up to helm the final show of the season, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me on a Sunday.
Dowdy has a mutable quality that allows him to play a range of parts, at least when he's not sporting his distinguished beard. He brought down the house as Boy Scout Chip Tolentino in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (also 2008), a young man driven to win the bee because of his own American exceptionalism, only to be sadly undone by an ill-timed erection. Dowdy has since moved backstage, becoming the company's assistant artistic director.
"Scott and I were at dinner one night before going to see a show at the Fox, and I asked why he doesn't do more cabarets or concerts. With being a small theater company, he responded by saying he can't do it all himself," Dowdy recalls. "I offered to help if he ever wanted to do more, and he said he would keep it in mind. Then after that he reached out to me about being associate artistic director and asked if I would direct with him and run our offshoot Off Line — and I was thrilled."
Dowdy has since directed several of the fundraising cabaret shows under the Off Line label; for New Line, these performances help to defray costs. He's also co-directed several main-stage productions with Miller.
It's tempting to think that Miller is grooming Dowdy for the eventual job of running New Line, but Miller doesn't see it that way at all.
"I haven't really thought about New Line without me," he says. Still, he adds, "If ten years out I'm exhausted, I'd feel fine with Mike taking over. New Line would stay New Line."
It's high praise coming from the man who built the company through the ground up and has since endured forced migrations, budget cuts, disappearing scenic designers and the occasional show that failed to meet the approval of New Line's exceptionally discerning audience. Not that any of that in any way dissuades Miller from ardently pursuing his true love: American musical theater.
"If I wasn't running New Line, I'd still be thinking about musicals. The great joy in my life is sharing 'our type' of shows with people."
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