DECONSTRUCTING HAROLD HILL
An Insider's Guide to Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill: An Insider's Guide to Musical Theatre by Scott Miller goes on sale tomorrow. Since Mr. Miller's previous book, From Assassins to West Side Story, was such a big hit, we thought we would take this opportunity for a quick chat with the author.
Talkin' Broadway: Scott, your first book, From Assassins to West Side Story, was very successful and has become something of a bible for amateur and professional productions of some of America's best loved musicals. Does your new book, Deconstructing Harold Hill, follow the same format?
Scott Miller: Yes. There are fewer chapters (eight instead of sixteen) because some of the chapters are a lot longer this time. Both Passion and Sunday in the Park with George really needed more space than the shows I wrote about in the first book.
TB: Both are shows by Sondheim. Are his musicals really that much more intricate, have that many more layers than other musicals?
Scott Miller: Well, they're far more complex musically than most other musicals, especially Sondheim's later works (Sunday in the Park and later). Of the shows I wrote about in this book, only Ragtime equals the Sondheim shows in its musical complexity. And Sondheim characters tend to be more complex, more subtextual, and often not what they seem on the surface. In Company for instance, all the important dramatic action and character information is in the subtext -- almost none of it is in the actual words of the dialogue. That makes for a far more interesting show, but one that is harder to figure out and put on a stage.
TB: What musicals do you discuss in Deconstructing Harold Hill?
Scott Miller: Camelot, Chicago, The King and I, March of the Falsettos, The Music Man, Passion, Ragtime, and Sunday in the Park with George.
TB: A lot of people see you as a particular expert on the works of Stephen Sondheim, yet Deconstructing Harold Hill includes chapters on The Music Man, Chicago, The King and I, and Ragtime. How did you decide on which musicals to include in the new book?
Scott Miller: It was the same with both books. I wanted a variety. I wanted to make sure I included one Rodgers & Hammerstein show, one Lerner & Loewe show, and one Fosse show. I included Music Man, King and I, and Camelot because I think those shows are a lot deeper, more layered, and more sophisticated than people give them credit for. I included Ragtime because I really think it's the next Great American Musical, alongside Show Boat, Carousel, West Side Story, etc. -- it's so brilliantly constructed, so imaginative, so rule-breaking.
TB: Everything from classic to cutting-edge Broadway. What would you say happened to the American musical between Camelot and Ragtime?
Scott Miller: It's been a slow evolution I think. The biggest changes have been two things. First there is no limit now on what subject matter a musical can tackle. Rodgers & Hammerstein were the first ones to open that door a tiny bit - Rodgers with Pal Joey, Hammerstein with Show Boat - and then more with Carousel, South Pacific, etc. But even they could not have imagined musicals about Times Square hookers, presidential assassins, a German transsexual named Hedwig... I think finally there are no limits.
The other change is about acting skills. In the early 1960s, musicals started using real actors who could sing instead of singers who could act a little. And that changed everything. Rodgers & Hammerstein had written some extremely dramatic stuff, but the singers of their era weren't up to the dramatic challenge. Today, writers can write anything, and they know they'll find outstanding actors who are trained in musical theatre.
TB: If there are no longer any limits to subject matter and trained performers available who can realize any vision, where is the American musical headed, what do you see happening within the next twenty years?
Scott Miller: I have no idea. I think it's impossible to say because it depends on who the new voices are, what they want to say and how they choose to say it. No one could have possibly seen Jason Robert Brown or Adam Guettel coming, yet here they are and each with very different, very unique voices, writing brilliant stuff. But that mystery about what's coming is part of the fun...
TB: You're not only an author, but the Artistic Director of St. Louis' innovative New Line Theatre. I see New Line is currently mounting a production of Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's Floyd Collins. Can we expect to see an analysis of Floyd in a future book?
Scott Miller: I've written a number of analysis chapters that haven't made it into my books for one reason or another - Anyone Can Whistle, Jacques Brel, Songs for a New World, etc. I usually write an analysis for every show I produce, so hopefully I will write one for Floyd before we open, but I don't know if there will be a third book of analyses so I don't know if the Floyd chapter will ever by published.
TB: Both From Assassins to West Side Story and Deconstructing Harold Hill seem to be most useful for someone involved in a production of one of the musicals they cover. Yet, I know a lot of people who are not directly involved in theatre, except as eager and well educated fans, who read From Assassins to West Side Story just for fun, and say they got a lot out of it. Who do you see as the target audience for your books?
Scott Miller: At first, my target audience was directors and actors, both professional and amateur. But I found with the first book that anybody who loves musicals enjoys them. I tried very hard to make the analyses accessible enough for someone with no music or theatre training, and yet in-depth and thorough enough for professionals. And from the response I've gotten on the first book, I think I succeeded in that. I've had so many professional actors and directors tell me they've used the book, and yet a lot of people who just like to go to musicals have enjoyed it too.
TB: How much do you think an average audience member - not a musical theatre enthusiast - should know about a show before they see it? Does it depend on the show?
Scott Miller: That's a tough question. I think with really challenging, "weird" shows like Assassins or Passion, it helps a lot to read up on it, listen to the cast album, etc. before seeing it the first time. There's just too much material, too much depth to get in one sitting, so it helps to have a head start. On the other hand, there is something to be said for that magic of hearing the music the first time on stage. I've talked to people who've used my book both ways. Some read a chapter before they go to see that show, and they say it helps them enjoy it. Others read a chapter after seeing the show and they say it makes the experience richer that way.
For me, the perfect scenario is to see a show, then read about it, talk about it, listen to the CD, etc., then see it again. When I go to New York to see a new show that I know is going to blow me away, I buy tickets for two performances before I even get there. I see it once, have time to think about it, figure things out, then see it again. I did that with Ragtime (in between I got to talk to the authors), and it was amazing that way.
TB: Have you ever seen a show that disappointed you at first, but seemed to improve on further viewing?
Scott Miller: No, but there are shows that I don't particularly love the first time I hear the cast album, then on repeated listens, I fall in love with them. Both Songs for a New World and Floyd Collins were like that. So was Passion. A lot of contemporary shows demand a lot from their audiences. Some people find that unpleasant, but I find it thrilling.
TB: What show was your biggest surprise the first time you saw it, was so much better than you had ever anticipated it being?
Scott Miller: The recent Broadway revival of The King and I. I had always hated that show and Frank Rich told me I had to see it. So I went and was stunned by how smart, how sexy, how exciting it was. It gave me a whole new perspective on the show, and made me realize that even those of us in the business can't always separate the material from the production when we see a show. The same thing happened to me with Carousel when it was revived at Lincoln Center. It makes me want to take fresh looks at all the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows that I always thought were sappy and silly.
TB: About every 15 minutes, somebody will state that musical theatre is a dying or dead art form, one that doesn't appeal to a majority of the people. What's your take on this?
Scott Miller: They've been saying that for thirty years. The musical theatre is healthier than it's ever been. But Broadway is no longer the place for challenging new work. Broadway has become more a tourist destination than a place for serious new work. We have to let go of our idea of Broadway as the only place wonderful new shows happen. Today, they're happening all over the country, in regional theatres, small experimental theatres, everywhere. Luckily, the web gives us a chance to find out about them. I go to New York twice a year usually, but I also go elsewhere to see new work. My company in St. Louis has done five new musicals in its first eight years - if Broadway no longer takes the development process seriously, the rest of us have to.
TB: What would you say is the secret to introducing new audiences to musicals?
Scott Miller: Help them. The musical is a strange art form, with its own rules and quirks. People seeing a musical for the first time need some preparation about what they're going to see. My company sends out a quarterly newsletter, publishes Teacher Study Guides, background and analysis pieces (like the chapters in my book), all kinds of things to help people prepare for seeing our shows. And the local press helps a lot in preparing audiences for the stranger shows we do. Audiences are - despite what many community theatre people think - very adventurous. They love trying new things, going new places. But you have to help them with difficult material, or material that is foreign to them.
TB: You've been working in musical theatre for 20 years now. What about it still excites you? What makes you keep coming back, to start planning your next musical production as soon as the current one finishes its run?
Scott Miller: The process of discovery. I'm lucky, in that I only work on really interesting, challenging stuff. And I realized a while back that if I'm not scared going into rehearsals, then the show isn't a big enough challenge for me, and it's not much fun. Watching all the elements come together over the course of the process, seeing the pieces fit together and make sense, is always thrilling. And no matter how exhausted I am when a show closes, I can't wait to start over again.
TB: What one piece of advice would you give to young performers who want to work in musical theatre?
Scott Miller: Know the literature and the history. Read everything you can read - scripts, history books, biographies, analysis books. Know the art form as a whole, not just the shows you like, because every show we do, we stand on the shoulders of everybody who went before us, and we ought to profit from all they learned. Also, there's nothing like being in the theatre doing shows - at school, in community theatre, semi-pro, whatever. Nothing else can prepare you in the same way. So audition for everything. Try things that scare you and take risks all the time.
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