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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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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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August 12, 2020

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