Rock & roll and the musical are uniquely American inventions. Both place a greater value on expression than on technique, both seek to connect with audiences on a deeply personal level and both are best experienced in a live setting.
But while rock & roll has weathered changing musical tastes and technological advances in format and audience consumption, the musical has suffered a serious loss of cultural standing since the 1960s, which just so happens to coincide with rock's rise to prominence. No longer do songs from the newest shows track on the Billboard charts; there is no modern equivalent to Ed Sullivan, who gladly presented entire scenes of current Broadway musicals on TV so wary audiences could get a taste before they committed to buying tickets.
And yet the musical survives. And in St. Louis, Scott Miller works tirelessly to see that the musical thrives.
Twenty-five years ago Miller founded New Line Theatre, the only professional company in St. Louis (aside from the Muny) dedicated to producing a full season of musicals. And not just musicals — rock musicals. While Miller enjoys the classics from the Golden Age of Musicals such as South Pacific and My Fair Lady, his real loves are the more modern shows about sexuality, the counterculture and the freaks, geeks and weirdos living on the front lines of the culture wars. He likes his shows loud, fast and a little crass, but he also wants a musical that has something to say about who we are and what's happening right now. Give Miller Hair and he'll show you the spirit of renewal that powers the world; give him Bat Boy and he'll show you the monster hiding inside you.
This fall, New Line Theatre will stage its 75th production — the regional premiere of Heathers, based on the Winona Ryder/Christian Slater film. The three other shows in the 2015-2016 season are all either St. Louis premieres (American Idiot and Tell Me on a Sunday) or American regional premieres (Atomic).
Miller can risk a season of new shows because he has built an audience that expects adventurous, even challenging musicals. New Line has won a national reputation not just for launching new productions, but for saving shows that have been savaged on Broadway. Miller and company revived High Fidelity in 2008 as a viable musical for regional and college theaters, and New Line's 2012 staging of John Waters' Cry-Baby was received with near-universal acclaim.
Even so, this season will be different. For the first time in New Line's history, Miller will not be directing one of those shows: Mike Dowdy, Miller's co-artistic director for the past several seasons, will be the sole director of Tell Me on a Sunday.
But perhaps even more importantly is a big change to the theater itself: Miller and the rest of the New Liners are about to begin the process of moving into the brand-new Marcelle Theater in Grand Center.
For most St. Louis companies, theater space is at a premium. While the relatively recent arrivals of the Gaslight Theater and Tower Grove Abbey have provided much-needed options, the lack of good, reliable performance space is persistent and demands a certain amount of resourcefulness on the part of each artistic director. How can you plan a season if you don't know how big next year's stage will be?
In the past 25 years, Miller has produced top notch musical theater in church basements, down-at-the-heels shared spaces and the occasional college black box. None of them has offered any permanence, which means every few years he's spent the off-season trying to wrangle a functional place with an affordable lease.
The Marcelle is a game changer. Scott Miller has traveled a long road to get to this point, but the soundtrack has been phenomenal.