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Telling Important Stories

Despite a budget deficit, renowned Arizona Onstage pushes on with "Songs for a New World"


Kevin Johnson has been having one of those good-news/bad-news summers.

The good news is that his Arizona Onstage production of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George sold out every show in June and got great reviews. The bad news is that even with packed houses, the run left Arizona Onstage Productions more than $10,000 in the hole. Johnson briefly considered shutting down his company.

Other good news is that Johnson learned that he may be more or less the inspiration for the main character in a movie being released Aug. 27. The bad news is that the movie is Hamlet 2, whose main character is a talentless dork who leads his high school drama students into an ill-advised production that features a song titled "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus." Johnson briefly considered legal action, but, then, he was more than $10,000 in the hole.

Ultimately, he decided to forge ahead with another Arizona Onstage season, the first production of which will open next week. And he decided to relax and enjoy the 15 minutes of notoriety he'll get from Hamlet 2, even though he's decided not to comment on it publicly for fear of making people wonder just what goes on during his day job at the highly touted BASIS Tucson School.

More about his Arizona Onstage Productions' upcoming show in a moment, but first, because we love gawking at crashes so much, let's sneak a peek at Hamlet 2. Things don't look good, if for no other reason that it's opening on a Wednesday--the usual dumping ground for movies sure to be critically reviled, giving them a chance to build audience word-of-mouth before the nasty reviews start appearing. (However, our Bob Grimm was able to see it early, and he liked it; check out his review on Page 44, and an interview with the movie's star, Steve Coogan, on Page 43.)

Before Johnson decided to play dumb for the benefit of his school, he sent me an e-mail describing the movie, which frankly seemed like the story of Johnson's recent life: "It is about a guy that sorta had some brief fame as an actor, and kinda got burned out. He moves to Tucson, Arizona, and starts teaching drama. He is obsessed with weird story lines and death on stage. His main friend is his cat. He has a vision problem and cannot drive himself, relying on his neighbor. He teaches at a very celebrated academic high school, and gets into trouble with the material he puts on stage. They decide that drama is getting in the way of real education, and want to pull the plug on it. It is up to Kevin--I mean, this guy--to save the day and prove to the school and his students that drama is very important--mainly bizarre musicals. He writes the rock opera Hamlet 2, (featuring) half the score original, and half from the soundtrack of the film Flashdance and performed by the Tucson Gay Men's Chorus. And since in Hamlet 1 everyone pretty much dies, he writes (into the plot) a time machine, (bringing together) Jesus Christ, Hamlet and the president of the United States. After the opening number, 'Rock Me, Sexy Jesus,' he knows that this will either be the end of his teaching career or the beginning of something beautiful."

All right: Johnson's fascination with weirdness and death on stage are confined mainly to his Arizona Onstage Productions work. The most unusual thing he's done with his BASIS students is a production of the opera Brundibár, which was originally performed by children in a Nazi death camp. No, Johnson did not interpolate a number titled "Rock Me, Sexy Hitler."

Now, Johnson did help present a sanitized local version of Trey Parker's musical Cannibal! in 2005 when it had been banned from another high school in town. Johnson met Parker at that time; Parker was a collaborator with Pam Brady on South Park and Team America: World Police; Brady co-wrote Hamlet 2. Definitely a thread, however tenuous. And Brady has admitted in an interview that her Hamlet 2 script was inspired in part by visits to Tucson--but she started working on it two years before Johnson's participation in Cannibal!

So, coincidence or conspiracy? The truth may never be known. Meanwhile, Johnson has resolved to focus on the good news; whatever short-lived, demented fame may come to him via Hamlet 2 will only draw attention to his latest Arizona Onstage effort, Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World. It's a 1995 revue, rather than a book show, featuring six singer/actors, a professional onstage band, and full lighting/set work. According to Johnson, the song cycle explores change in life, in family and love. Starting with the founding of America and proceeding to contemporary times, the songs address common themes from different angles.

"This is a perfect time for this show, because it's all about taking risks and making discoveries within ourselves and the people around us," Johnson says. "It's an optimistic show, and that's what I'm trying to say about Arizona Onstage. The economy is hurting a lot of people and theater companies, and everybody's scaling back, but the optimism of the show is that people will always go through times of doubt and questioning, and they can survive. Life gives everyone choices, and for Arizona Onstage, the choice is: Shit or get off the pot. Either keep making it happen, or fold."

Johnson says that older fans of Sunday in the Park With George may not know composer Jason Robert Brown, but his high school students certainly do, and so Johnson is offering deeply discounted tickets to students and teachers.

"He's a fresh young composer, hot news, and he's on a lot of my students' iPods," Johnson says. "His new show on Broadway is 13, a thinking man's middle school musical written with panache. He knows people's vulnerabilities and fears and what makes them tick."

In Songs for a New World, some of the material is serious, and some is funny. The song about someone contemplating suicide is supposed to be one of the funny ones, Johnson claims. As a director, he's endeavoring to maintain a conceptual line through the course of the 90-minute show, but he's also trying to leave the meaning of each song a little vague.

"Jason Robert Brown said he wants these songs to be open for interpretation," Johnson says. "My goal is to have everybody in the audience say, 'Wow, I can't believe that song was about me!'"

In a sense, the whole show, and especially its finale, is about Arizona Onstage. In the last number, Johnson says, the members of the company end up not as characters but as themselves, explaining why it's so important for them to be onstage telling stories.

"We're telling stories, because we want people to know that everybody has a story as important as what we've just spent 90 minutes exploring. It sounds like I'm going Up With People, but I'm not; it's like Up With People with balls.

"Right now, the whole notion that we're even continuing as a theater company is outlandishly crazy. But if we can get through these next three shows--which should have box-office pull and lower production costs--if I can get through them, I can pay my bills."

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