The new kid on Broadway is [title of show], a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical – metatheatrics taken to the nth degree.
Written by then-out-of-work actors Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, this charming new show has come a long way from its debut at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, for which it was written, to its off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre, to Broadway. More a revue than a story-driven musical, the show makes its Broadway debut after the success of Bell and Bowen’s YouTube series The [title of show] Show attracted the attention of producers to this unlikely Broadway property with its unexpected popularity.
It’s a show that rarely takes itself seriously, but why should seriousness take precedent? Even the Playbill is self-referential, itself sporting a cover sporting the cover of a Playbill with the show’s logo. There are gags and songs and silly scenes and plenty of musical theatre references, to Cats, Aspects of Love, Starlight Express, Sondheim (Into the Woods in particular), and a host of others, many of them far more obscure than the aforementioned, making this show best for those already obsessed with musicals, those who’ve been in them in whatever capacity, and those who’ve ever dreamed of writing them.
If you don’t meet the above qualifications, don’t fret. There’s talent and comic timing here to keep even the most cynical theatergoer amused. The show is performed by a cast of four – Bell, Bowen, and their two friends Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell. Heidi’s the one with the Broadway belt, Susan’s the one with the razor-sharp wit, Hunter is the funny one, and Jeff plays straight man to the rest of the gang. Each gets his or her moments in the spotlight. While the women are the stronger singers, the men provide most of the drama, their spats and spasms spurring on what little plot is to be found.
If I have reservations about this charmer, it’s the triviality of the plot to the overall structure. Tiffs over the progress of the show within the show aren’t quite enough to create a real sense of dramatic tension, and the lengthy section in the second half of the show chronicling the details of the production’s various incarnations left some zing to be desired. Still, I never felt bored during the 90-minute duration, content to kick back and revel in the magic conjured by these four performers with practically nothing up their sleeves, aside from a projector, in the way of stage trickery. It’s these four gifted comic performers that elevate what could have been something simply cute to something that truly stands out amongst the crowd of current Broadway shows.
Creatively Jeff Bowen’s score perfectly matches Hunter Bell’s buoyant book, providing the proper sense of playfulness for their sparky original musical. Silly songs like Monkeys and Playbills, Die Vampire, Die! and the Schoolhouse Rock send-off An Original Musical are complemented by faux-serious songs like A Way Back to Then and Nine People’s Favorite Thing. Larry Pressgrove provides excellent support on the piano, also serving as musical director and arranger.
It’s a small show, with a cast of four and a piano player inhabiting a space made up of four chairs arranged in a relatively drab-looking room that could pass for any standard office. Even if this small show may not seem a natural fit for Broadway, its presence on the main stem is of some significance. It’s a show that, in its very nature, questions what Broadway musicals should be. Do they need a big cast, bigger sets, and even bigger names – or will big hearts and big laughs suffice?
The audience at the performance I attended seemed to be undecided. While some in the audience sat dumbfounded with stony glares, still other seemed to be experiencing something just short of a religious conversion. A mainstream audience – those as yet unaware of the joys of Broadway geekdom – may miss a few of the inside jokes, but the universality of the themes should more than suffice. In the end, regardless of audience response, the production’s got the goods to back itself up.
In the show’s penultimate number, the company explains that they’d rather be “nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” I predict this will probably ring true as [title of show] finds its niche on Broadway. Though it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, full of insider jokes it willfully acknowledges, the production satisfies on a variety of different levels. It’s relevant not only to those who love musicals but to those who know what it’s like to struggle their way to top as well. The fact that this little show that could has finally made it to the Great White Way after four years trudging uptown feels like a small but major triumph.