Provocative Down The Line: New Line Theatre

Sitting on the patio at Dressel’s Pub on a beautiful spring day is made only more interesting by a lively conversation. Scott Miller knows this, and is more than happy to engage in discussion. And if the topic is musical theater, then all the better. Miller, the founder and Artistic Director for New Line Theatre, is gearing up for the third and final show of New Line’s 14th season, Kiss of the Spider Woman, but took time out to talk a little about his company and the state of St. Louis theater.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, Miller worked with Affton Center Stage, a community theater organization with a reputation for quality work. Quality, yes, but safe. Miller started discovering musicals that he thought would be fun to do but whose material would probably not be something that you’d want Grandma to come see. Wanting to get more adventurous, Miller realized the best way to mount the edgy shows he had an interest in was to start his own company. New Line was formed in 1991, with the first show, a revue entitled A Tribute to Rock Musicals, performed in 1992 at the Center of Contemporary Arts. For its first few years, New Line was nomadic, using whatever venues they had at their disposal.

Eventually, the company found a home at the St. Marcus Theater, located in the basement of St. Marcus United Church of Christ. In addition to New Line, the St. Marcus space housed companies including That Uppity Theatre Company and the NonProphet Theater Company. New Line’s first show there, Assassins, was a rousing success, and helped solidify the St. Marcus as a great house for the gritty, urban theater that St. Louis was lacking. Unfortunately, the theater was shut down in 1999 following the congregation’s objection over the production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, which centers on a Jesus-like figure who is gay. New Line had nothing to do with the production, but found themselves punished when the church’s board voted to close down the space. New Line was again without a home.

Then Miller stumbled upon the ArtLoft Theatre, a somewhat new venue in the old garment district of Washington Avenue downtown already housing the Hothouse Theater Company. Now, as one of the two main companies sharing the space (along with the new HotCity Theater), New Line not only is growing in the scope of its shows, but also building a solid support base that’s augmented by critical acclaim. The most recent show, The Robber Bridegroom, was a bona fide success, running four weeks to near sold-out crowds. Oddly enough, Miller says that Robber was actually the show of the season that he felt wouldn’t get a large response.

“Every season we have one show that’s more of an experiment, one that we don’t expect to do well. Which is why the other two shows are generally a little more well-known—while at the same time being unconventional—so that we can cover our losses with the experimental show. So to have Robber do as good as it did just made me really happy.”

So why musicals and not straight plays?

“I have never not been a freak for musical theater,” Miller says. “As a small child, we would go to the Muny every summer and I really just fell in love. In fact, most of our family albums were cast albums. With musical theater, everything plays out with music, and the abstract language of music sometimes says more than words can.”

New Line has a reputation in St. Louis for producing provocative shows. While Miller respects traditional musical theater, he is drawn more to the shows that would never see the light of day in St. Louis if not for his company. As the only professional alternative to companies such as The Muny and Stages St. Louis, Miller dubbed the company the “bad boy of musical theater,” and the proclamation rings true. In the last few years, the company has produced risky shows such as Bat Boy: The Musical, Reefer Madness: The Musical, Hair, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The company’s mission statement more or less hints at the fare audiences can expect to see: “New Line Theatre involves the people of the St. Louis region in the creation and exploration of provocative, alternative, issue-oriented works of the musical theatre.” Issue-oriented pieces aside, Miller says he just likes putting shows up that interest him, ones he wants to share with the audiences of St. Louis.

Occasionally, there is a nonmusical play that catches his attention. David Dillon’s Party is such a show. To do this play without running afoul of New Line’s mission statement, Miller formed a new branch of the company, Out of Line Productions, in 1998. The show proved to be so popular, it was mounted again in 2003.

Miller also has plans to produce his own original musical. Author of several books on theater history, Miller has tried his hand at scripting and scoring his first full-scale musical, Johnny Appleweed, a political piece.

“Basically, Johnny makes it to the president of the United States to tell him how much he’s fucking up the country,” says Miller, with the hint of a smile. He hopes to have the show in production by the time the mid-term elections are held. In the meantime, though, Miller is focusing on the upcoming season which includes a revival of Bat Boy along with The Fantastiks and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Above all else, Miller enjoys working in St. Louis, and is delighted to see that the number of New Line’s patrons increasing. “There is a growing audience for alternative theater in St. Louis,” he remarks, and thankfully, New Line is around to supply that demand.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply