Back when I worked as a literary associate for Philadelphia Theatre Company, we had a running joke in the office. Given the annual struggle to pick shows for the coming season, we often said we should do a show called "T.B.A." (To Be Announced), in which the office staff would sit on stage for the evening and talk about what sort of shows the company should produce. Never would I have guessed that this droll concept would be the basis for an actual play, the hilariously funny and smart new musical [title of show] at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
In this "metamusical," composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen and book writer Hunter Bell decide to write a musical about writing a musical for the New York Musical Theatre Festival, having only a window of three weeks to complete their assignment. Such is the loose plot of the show's entertaining ninety minutes in which everything that Bowen and Bell do, think, or say becomes fodder for the show now on stage at the Belt Theater. Should the show have a dream sequence, Bowen and Bell wonder? Sure, and so they put one on stage. How about a scene in which the cast fills out the application form for the NYMF Festival? Why not? Add that too. As Bowen asks at one point, "If I say 'Wonder Woman for President,' will that be in our musical?" And so it is, part of the off-the-wall book that Bell has devised.
That Bowen and Bell, "Two Nobodies in New York" as one the show's bouncy songs goes, play themselves, only adds to the show's riotous self-referentiality. The two men are strong performers in their own right, with Bowen serving as the "straight man" to Bell's exuberant show queen persona. Rounding out the cast are Jeff and Hunter's actress friends, the marvelously strange Susan, (Susan Blackwell) and Stacia (Heidi Blickenstaff), a powerhouse belter who fears that she will be replaced by Emily Skinner as soon as the show gets off the ground. Even the show's musical director Larry (Larry Pressgrove) is a "character" and given a few lines, thereby contributing to the musical's sense of verisimilitude.
Following in the vein of Urinetown, [title of show] parodies a variety of musicals including Into the Woods, Fosse, and Dreamgirls. Bowen and Bell gamely poke fun at all the clichés of musical theater with conscious nods to gratuitous "dance breaks," soul-stirring key changes, and musical quartets in which each character sings a different theme in harmonic counterpoint. Orchestrating the presumed silliness of these traditional musical theater conventions is Broadway star Michael Berresse who, in his New York directing debut, guides the show with a strong hand and an eye for detail, supplying the cast with a seamlessly unending number of "cheesy" musical theater dance combinations. Such campy physical humor adds to the parodic nature of the piece, although at times overwhelms some of the more heartfelt numbers like "Part of it All," where Bowen and Bell's dream of acceptance in the theater world is undercut by silly choreography. That said, Berresse keeps the cast on their feet with a whirlwind of movement that makes the show feel bigger and more exciting than the intimate piece might initially suggest.
Hands down, the first hour of [title of show] contains some of the funniest musical theater writing seen on stage in a long time. Much of the show's humor stems from the fact that Bell's book is so self-aware of itself and the rhetoric of musicals, while not being afraid to add jokes that are just plain silly and delightfully dumb as well. Though some non-theater people might be stumped by many of the show's "in-jokes," including references to "lost musicals" Kwamina and Henry, Sweet Henry and theater people Frank Wildhorn, Donna Murphy, and Mary Stout, the show's wacky tone and eager performances compensate for such industry-specific laughs.
Though of course aiming for humor with this show, Bowen and Bell are not beyond posing meaningful and more profound questions as well. Early on, Stacia says that the men have a clever concept, but asks if audiences will care about the show's characters. Though not entirely successful in addressing this concern (Bowen offers a tender, but ultimately weak song called "The Wall" that attempts to offer the needed emotion the show lacks), questions about fame, art, and success abound as the characters attempt to balance the demands of their everyday lives (office work, New York stress, lack of health care) with the desire to create meaningful theater.
Despite its winning songs, book, and cast, [title of show] is not without fault. It might have been a truly flawless work if it wasn't for a totally pointless and unfunny twelve-minute section near the end of the piece. Realizing that they don't have enough of their own material to fill their musical or complete their demo CD, Bowen and Bell ask Susan if they can use songs and material from her show The Retarded Girl to pad their own writing. Tastelessness aside, the four songs that make up this "mini-musical" are of inferior quality in comparison with the rest of the show. The entire sequence, which covers the adventures of a retarded girl who falls down a well and meets some prostitutes (!), is too long and excruciatingly off-topic, ultimately bringing the show to a screeching halt. The sequence is momentarily redeemed at its conclusion when Stacia says, "I don't see why you would use this" with Susan further suggesting that the whole episode "feels plopped in." Such a conscious admission of the sequence's irrelevance is funny, but the length of the set-up doesn't validate this punch line or cover up the fact that the women are really on to something insightful about the unsuitability of this episode within the show's larger structure and narrative.
Some people might deride [title of show] as too gimmicky in all of its self-referentiality, but from foul-mouthed puppets to eye-popping special effects, I can't think of a recent hit show that hasn't had a gimmick of some sort or another. Though the show probably won't play the Helen Hayes Theater, as Hunter Bell imagines in one of his moments of grandeur in the musical, [title of show] does deserve a longer off-Broadway run (one with the original cast and sans Emily Skinner) to allow theater aficionados the chance to revel in this thoroughly original and unique musical comedy.
New York Musical Theatre Festival