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How Scott Miller Is Revamping the Musical -- and Putting St. Louis Theatre on the Map 

His sharp, smart musicals have gained a national following

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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."

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