For years, I've been wanting to get to the New Line Theatre in St. Louis -- all because of Scott Miller's books.

Miller is the artistic director of New Line, which has introduced Sondheim's more obscure musicals -- Anyone Can Whistle, Assassins, and Passion -- to audiences in the Southern Missouri area. But in between staging these shows and scores of others over 12 years of operation, Miller has written four marvelous books, all published by Heinemann. If you don't know them, get all of them right now. Right now. Start reading and I'll bet you'll soon agree that Miller is one of our best musical theater minds.

He is first and foremost a staunch supporter of the art form. Witness his writing in Rebels With Applause (2001): "Tom Hanks was once on David Letterman's show declaring that he doesn't like musicals because it's so silly the way characters break into song. But falling in love with a mermaid or suddenly turning from 12 to 30 years old isn't silly at all, right?"

Miller doesn't buy into the notion that musical theater is moribund, no matter who thinks so. In the same book, he notes that "Even Stephen Sondheim, the most brilliant musical theatre artist alive today, said in a recent New York Times interview that musical theater is dead" -- before daring to say, "But I think he's wrong." To prove it, he writes dazzlingly appreciative essays on Rent, Floyd Collins, and Songs for a New World, as well as the far less celebrated gay musical The Ballad of Little Mikey. That last one is a show I don't know at all but, based on Miller's description and endorsement, I'm just going to have to seek it out.

Nor is Miller afraid to say something that might anger old-world musical theater enthusiasts. He says, "Americans operate under a handicap with most serious musicals written before 1960. When shows like Oklahoma! and Carousel were written, the actors in Broadway musicals were not generally up to the dramatic demands of the material. They weren't equipped the way actors are today to explore character and subtext, to approach a musical with the same seriousness of purpose with which they would approach work by Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams." Them's fighting words to a number of old-line observers, but considering the archival material I've seen and heard, I think he's got a good point.

At the same time, Miller has great respect for the classics that many dismiss with a knee-jerk reaction as time-worn. In Deconstructing Harold Hill (2000), he insists, "Those who see Camelot as just an old-fashioned, romantic musical spectacle aren't looking very closely (or they've seen only shallow productions). Camelot has a story and characters with a complexity and a depth that has been lost or ignored over the years." He proves his point in the next 21 pages.

Scott Miller
Scott Miller
Miller knows his way around music, too. In From Assassins to West Side Story (1996), witness what he writes about the title song of Company: "The accompaniment figure is busy, hurried, seemingly chaotic. It consists of four separate voices, all running against each other -- the regular minimalist 4/4 bass line; a tenor line that sounds like a 6/8 rhythm with one extra eighth note every other measure; an alto line that also sounds like a 6/8 rhythm but displaced by one eighth note from the tenor line; and a top line of displaced half notes that doesn't line up with any of the other voices." Those lines make me have respect for Miller, not to mention Sondheim.

In all of his books, Miller gives some fascinating background material. When discussing The King and I, he writes: "The Thai people believe everyone has two souls. One of those is the kwan, a person's sense of self, his confidence, his self-respect. They believe you can lose your kwan through the top of your head, which is why they all wear their hair in top knots (and why the King should never be played bald.)" That certainly was news to me, and undoubtedly to Rodgers and Hammerstein and Brynner.

Miller is also an excellent historian in another sense: In his newest book, Let the Sunshine In: The Genius of Hair (2003), he gives an explanation of how and why the Vietnam War happened that is the easiest to understand of any I've ever read. Finally, at the end of each chapter, he cites other resources relative to the show he's discussed, often with a keen eye. (Of How to Succeed, he notes, "The movie is on video but several songs were cut. Interestingly, though a scene from 'Coffee Break' is on the videotape box and the song is on the movie soundtrack album, it's not in the movie.")

So, on my recent trip to St. Louis, I headed to the New Line -- even though Miller wasn't doing a musical. I just wanted to shake the guy's hand in appreciation. I did just that in an enormous space that looks like a loft (though it's on a lobby floor), with big exposed white pipes dotting the ceiling. And I did stay to see his production of Party, David Dillon's comedy about a bunch of gay friends sitting around talking and getting nude once they start playing a truth-or-dare-like parlor game. (Miller opened his Director's Notes in the program with, "You're here for the dicks, aren't you?" He also put on the title page that his theater "does not use any public funding, so don't even bother calling your congressman.")

Well, at least Party has many musical references in the script, and I savored such lines as "I love Jerry Herman. I listened to Dolly! and Mame and even Dear World." And, of course, "No one can sing Evita like Patti!" Then there was one partygoer's comment "Oh, Chino, make it no be true!" (regarding a sex act he's forced to do) and another singing "I think I'm gonna like it here" (regarding a sex act he's delighted to receive). Still, the dialogue for which Party will always be remembered is one character's long but, alas, necessary explanation of the difference between a soundtrack and an original cast album.

I also adored Todd Schaefer's set, which was dotted with framed window cards for Pacific Overtures, Passion, Merrily We Roll Along, the Company anniversary concert, and -- no one can accuse Miller of not being up-to-date -- Bounce. Lest the Sondheim imagery not be strong enough, there were also framed postcards of West Side Story, Gypsy, and Funny Thing. And yet, in a nice acknowledgment that there are other musical theater talents aside from Sondheim, a full three-sheet of The Robber Bridegroom covered one door.

Okay, Party was fun and Miller's work on it was fine, but I still felt unfulfilled at not seeing a Miller musical at New Line. As I left, I proclaimed "I shall return!" with the zeal of Bud Frump at the end of the first act of How to Succeed -- once I saw that, next March, Miller will revive the Broadway obscurity The Nervous Set. That's very fitting, for this show about beatniks (yes, beatniks) had its world premiere in St. Louis in 1959 in one of the city's small theaters before superagent Robert Lantz picked it up and brought it to Henry Miller's (where Urinetown now resides). The Nervous Set didn't run long, but it did produce a cabaret favorite in "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men" and yielded a Columbia cast album that only recently was put on a CD by DRG. Jay Landesman, the show's co-librettist, told me in 1997: "There is always someone who wants to do a revival, including my nephew Rocco." (The reference is to the president of Jujamcyn Theatres.) "But nothing ever happens." Now, something will, thanks to Scott Miller and the New Line Theatre Company.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]