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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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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."

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