When the musical High Fidelity closed abruptly after just 13 unlucky performances on Broadway, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green were nursing their wounds—and then they got a call from St. Louis, Mo. Somebody there loved, loved, loved their show, and wanted to mount the first regional production. Though this stage adaptation of the beloved Nick Hornby novel and Stephen Frears film about a passionate pop-music fan and his rocky love life had been roundly panned by critics and resoundingly rejected by audiences in New York, a guy named Scott Miller desperately wanted to do the first regional production at his scrappy little New Line Theatre.
The show wasn’t yet officially licensed (it’s now available via Playscripts) and the score still needed some cleanup, but Miller nabbed the rights, and his 2008 production got raves from St. Louis critics. And it still gets high marks from lyricist Green, who attended.
“Seeing it there in a bare-bones production, a very respectful production—I don’t mean respectful in a boring way, but very attentive to every lyric and every musical reference, which is every writer’s dream—and seeing it intelligently done and well played, sitting in a full audience laughing with the material, really reclaimed the show for us,” says Green, who also recently trekked to St. Louis to see New Line’s regional premiere of Hands on a Hardbody, for which she provided lyrics.
Though composer Kitt didn’t make the pilgrimage, he followed the show’s fortunes admiringly from afar.
“Having someone come forward and say, ‘I love it and want to do it’ was really important to the show,” confirms Kitt, who went on to write Next to Normal (seen at New Line in 2013) and the current Broadway outing If/Then. “And not only did Scott Miller do it—he did a production that was unanimously praised in St. Louis. The conversation changes when you have a major critic like Judith Newmark [of St. Louis Post-Dispatch]go to bat for a show, and I know that led to a number of other productions, to people contacting us through Scott.”
Survey today’s new-musical makers, and you’ll find that many have a similar New Line story: about how Miller secured the rights to their show not long after its initial run, auspicious or otherwise, and ended up staging a production that found a receptive, even ecstatic audience in St. Louis, a town with no shortage of musical-theatre options (touring shows stop downtown at the Fox, while the huge outdoor venue Muny stages no fewer than seven full-scale tuners each summer).
Cry-Baby, another Broadway show with an abortive run, got a clarifying, stripped-down New Line remount in 2012 that its creators credit with momentum for the show (an original cast album is still in the works). Other highlights include Bukowsical, a gritty jazz musical about grizzled author Charles Bukowski that had played previously at Los Angeles’s tiny Sacred Fools Theatre and at the New York International Fringe Festival; Bat Boy and Reefer Madness, two cult musicals that also had their start in small L.A. venues, followed by disappointing runs Off-Broadway; Love Kills, Kyle Jarrow’s stark telling of the Starkweather/Fugate murder spree, which had only previously had a run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival; Passing Strange, which was a critical but not a commercial success on Broadway, and which New Line nabbed for its second regional production (after Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre).
Indeed, the list of nontraditional musicals that New Line has staged is both impressively comprehensive and quirkily eclectic: familiar pop-tuner titles like Hair, Grease and The Rocky Horror Show, but also bare, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Urinetown, Two Gentlemen of Verona and, only just recently, the arguable starting gun of the current wave of pop/rock musicals, Rent. Miller is also a champion of late-period Sondheim (Assassins, Passion, Into the Woods) and he’s staged a few emblematic works by the serious-new-musical writers (Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party).
The 2014–15 New Line season is typically risky and singular: Miller will stage two St. Louis premieres—Frank Wildhorn’s not-quite-a-Broadway-hit Bonnie & Clyde, then Richard Thomas’s brilliantly crass Jerry Springer the Opera—and close next spring with a revival of The Threepenny Opera.
There are edgier theatre companies in the U.S., but it would be hard to find a musicals-only company with programming as consistently provocative or as reluctant to proffer theatrical comfort food. You’ll probably never see The Music Man at New Line, in other words.