Though I’m learning that nothing is ever new, or old. To most people who encounter it these days, LIZZIE is new, and I understand that, to them, it is, and even to us there is a sense in which it is new because we’ve radically re-written it several times over since that first presentation in 1990. But it’s hard for me to see this latest iteration of an idea that we had 25 years ago as “new work.” And it should go without saying (though I will say it anyway so I don’t give the impression that I’m complaining) that it’s a very good thing that LIZZIE is new to so many people. I can’t think of thing one that’s bad about that. We’re going to Denmark next month. Fucking Denmark.
The “something new” we’re working on is again something very old, nearly as old as LIZZIE, but this time we’re not just dusting off an old piece and making it longer, clearer, better. We’re taking a completely different approach to a book we adapted in 1992, The Scarlet Letter. Shortly after the premiere of LIZZIE, Tim, as director, pulled together about 25-30 writers and performers and we tore apart this book that everyone knows because they had to read it in high school and we put it back together again, turning the Ohio theater into a total environment that the audience moved through on their own, encountering songs and recitations, conversations, spectacle, plays within plays within plays, all riffing on the ideas in the book. To use the current vernacular, I think you’d call it a hybrid between devised theater and immersive theater. Back then we called it “environmental theater.”
Speaking of new and old, I’m amused, bemused, something, by how trendy this “new” form of theatre (Sleep No More, Natasha and Pierre, etc.) has become, how it has a reputation of being radical and rebellious, when Tim and I left it behind years ago and now find ourselves neck-deep in a more conservative, straightforward type of storytelling, the Broadway-style book musical, finding it more useful for communicating the ideas we want to communicate to an audience.
Those who now call LIZZIE “edgy” and “out there,” well, I sure wish they could have been at the Ohio Theater in May 1992 to experience A: a Carnival Adulteration of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.” I don’t mean to say that we in particular were doing anything all that new. There’s a tradition, a lineage. Wooster Group. (I fully accept that I’ve become one of those old people who scold the kids for not knowing their history. Fully accept. The most surprising and disconcerting thing about getting older is realizing how much is lost, forgotten, and paved over.)
In the way that it’s interesting to think about how a work of art is new or old, it is interesting to think about how the artist is young or old. I offer no conclusions on that subject. It’s just something to muse upon on this warm and partly sunny Sunday morning. All that to say that we’re working on The Scarlet Letter again, this time making a more traditional musical.
Speaking of new and old and the kids not knowing their history, did you see this article in the New Yorker? It’s good. Worth a read. But this made me go hm:
Sondheim ushered in a new way of writing show tunes, one that favored liminal states—ambivalence, regret—over toe-tapping joy. ... This was groundbreaking.No question Sondheim changed the medium irrevocably, but ambivalence and regret? Rogers and Hammerstein, anyone?
I am by no means an expert in musical theater history, I’m just someone who loves the art form and has a few favorites, but those 5 songs popped into my head without even thinking about it too hard. There are tons of songs by Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Gershwin, that use the medium to explore “liminal states.” I think even Sondheim bristles at the characterization of his work as revolutionary. He relentlessly acknowledges his debt to forebears and mentors and describes his work as the continuation of a project.
It occurs to me that, if Sondheim didn’t introduce the emotionally complex relationship in musical theater, his groundbreaking contribution might be to have separated it from a social or political context. To me, what’s revolutionary about the era of the greatest American musicals, the 40s and 50s, is that those writers (mostly R&H but others, too) set conventional love stories in situations where the lovers were forced to confront a difficult, complex, changing world: Oklahoma and the American frontier, race and imperialism in South Pacific and The King and I, class mobility in My Fair Lady. Now, I’m less familiar with Sondheim’s oeuvre, so maybe someone can school me on this, but it seems to me that Sondheim is much more interested in how people feel about themselves and their friends and lovers than in how they respond to social and political pressures.
This has been a very full week. Tuesday, Tim and I were going to meet for our regular writing session, where we’re working on another something new (we canceled at the last minute in favor of working on our own separately), then Wednesday was a new weekly writing session (2 weekly sessions now, which is intense but necessary and just seeing them on my calendar lessens my anxiety about time passing too quickly and too little to show for it) with Tim and our friend and collaborator Liz who was one of the original writers on that long-ago version. I’ve fallen head first into The Scarlet Letter, reading and re-reading the book, underlining furiously on the subway, poring over 17th century sermons and passages of scripture. The two periods of American history that most inform the story are two of my favorites: the early years of the Massachusetts colony (when the story is set) and the second half of the 19th century with the various reform movements and the New England transcendentalists (when the story was written).
Thursday was Mom’s last chemo treatment in this latest round. Now she (and we) have to wait for 2 weeks when they’ll do some kind of scan to see if the cancer is gone. Two weeks.
Thursday night our co-writer on LIZZIE, Alan, whose day job is playing bass on Broadway, hooked us up with discount tickets for a preview of Rocky. Friday, C and I had tickets for Stage Kiss, a new play at Playwrights Horizons, which I loved. Before the show, when we couldn’t get a table at that cheap Greek restaurant across the street from Port Authority, we stumbled into some of the best Chinese food I’ve had in New York. Right there in a nondescript Szechuan restaurant on 42nd St. Delicious pork soup dumplings, fiery hot and intensely flavored cumin lamb. I was in heaven.
Yesterday, Saturday, I went alone to 12 Days a Slave. C is adamant about seeing all the films with Oscar nominations in the top categories before the awards ceremony. For me, that's usually a recipe for a lot of time and money I'll never get back. This year I was more susceptible to the hype and went to a few that I was on the fence about. That’s the other striking thing about getting older, all the lessons you never learn.