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Take Five: New Line's Scott Miller talks 'Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Musicals'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2011 - After two decades as the self-proclaimed "bad boy of musical theater," New Line has staged enough sex, drugs, and rock and roll to fill a book. So, founder and artistic director Scott Miller has done just that.

His new release, "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Musicals," focuses primarily on seven shows set in the Roaring Twenties through the late 20th century, including "The Wild Party," "Grease," "Hair" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

The book delves beneath the scripts and scores to examine the progression of American society, from prohibition to Woodstock to David Bowie and beyond.

Miller talked with the Beacon about his seventh book, a compilation of director's notes over the past decade, and what's in line for New Line's upcoming seasons.

How did the book come together?

Miller: Every time we work on a show I write one of these essays partly because we do a lot of weird shows, and it really helps the actors and designers and everybody to get on same page, conceptually.

And it really helps me; it forces me to put into words the things I'm thinking about and the ideas I have. Some of them turn out to be obviously stupid ideas and some turn out to be half-baked so writing them down helps me work through ideas.

Why did you focus on sex, drugs and rock and roll?

Miller: I realized I had a lot of essays about shows that were about sex, drugs and rock and roll, and every time I would write one of these essays I would include a section about what was going on in the culture. I realized a lot of these shows were so much about America fighting over whether to stay in the '50s or go on to the '60s.

There are three shows in the book that people often dismiss as silly and trivial: "Hair," "The Rocky Horror Show" and "Grease," all of which I think are so incredibly interesting and so full of truth about America. Nobody thinks "Grease" is a well-constructed, intelligent show, which it is.

I did a ton of research when we did "Grease," and the biggest surprise to me was how much rock and roll changed perceptions and and attitudes about sex. Before the '50s, you were a kid until you got married and there was no culture for teenagers. But rock and roll took teenagers seriously; it took teenage love and sex and hormones seriously. I think it made teenagers take themselves more seriously and made teenagers think and talk about sex more.

Once I figured that out, it was a big path to go down and see how that worked through the '50s, and the '60s, '70s and '80s.

How much prior information, such as the knowledge provided in your book, does a theater-goer need to fully enjoy a show?

Miller: I think that's different for everybody. When I go to see a new show in New York, I try to read everything about it. But the first time I saw "Rent" back in the '90s, I knew almost nothing about it; I hadn't heard any of the music and I didn't know the story. And it was awesome to see "Rent" fresh like that with no preconceptions.

I know a lot of colleges use my books, and I think the value for actors, writers and directors, particularly the younger ones, and people in mid-career too, is to kind of show them how to dig into a show. If they start working on a show that I haven't written about, they will know how to dig into it, what to look for.

Speaking of New York, you recently saw several shows there. Did you see anything you'd like to produce here?

Miller: I saw some amazing stuff including a revival of "Rent" Off-Broadway that is so totally different from the original but it's every bit as wonderful and perfect as the original. What's cool about that is I didn't want to do "Rent" because I thought the way they did it was perfect and I didn't just want to imitate the original. But after seeing this other "Rent," I thought, "Maybe there is more than one way to do this show."

I saw another show that I just loved called "The Blue Flower," this weird musical about these artists dealing with the first World War affecting art and their personal relationships and who they became. It was so interesting but a very strange show so I was a little concerned that maybe this is something only the original writers and directors could pull off.

But I've been talking to the writers and they were like, "We would love other people to try it" and "We have really detailed stage directions." So it might be something we can tackle; it might be one of the weirder things we've done but we've done a lot of weird things.

Then I saw "Lysistrata Jones." Do you know about "Lysistrata?" The women stage a sex strike until the men stop waging war. This new one transplants the story on a college campus sort of in the present and sort of in classical Greece and the women go on a sex strike until the boys break their 30-year losing basketball streak. It's really smart, really funny, a hilarious musical comedy and definitely something I want to work on.

Do you think you'll every get tired of doing musical theater?

Miller: We so often get to do really new work -- occasionally we do a world premier and we often are the first people in town to do Broadway and Off-Broadway shows -- and there's such incredibly cool new stuff being written.

We are getting both "Next to Normal" and "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" next season, both of which just thrill me to death. As long as I can do stuff like that, I'm not going to get tired of it.

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