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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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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.

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August 12, 2020

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