It wasn't until [title of show] opened on Broadway that it was ready for Broadway. What started out as a campy homage to musicals and the writing process at the New York Musical Festival in 2004 aspired for bigger things when it was updated to include its experiences post-NYMF as it played at the Vineyard Theater in 2006. But it's the new material developed for Broadway, 2008, that has given this musical a real arc. It's still light, comic, and filled with unabashed insidery glee, but it doesn't just say that it's building to fortissimo, it really does. Before, it would've been like the first act of The Fantasticks; now, while still running at a brisk hundred minutes, it's got elements of the second act of Into the Woods--not just more serious, but more musically complex.
Things start simply enough with "Untitled Opening Number," a meta-overture that gives a sampling of the self-referential narrative style (future present/present past) that [title of show] uses to sing about its own creation. ("So we'll put in a syncopation/and we'll add a quarter note/and we'll softly start the coda from a very tiny point.") It's a gimmick that repeats, most immediately in the next song, "Two Nobodies in New York" ("What if this dialogue were set to music?/What if what we're saying could be said in a song?"), and if it were only a gimmick, [title of show] would quickly wear out its welcome. Instead, the songs are actually character-building devices, miniature star vehicles that show not just Hunter Bell's book and Jeff Bowen's music and lyrics, but Hunter and Jeff's charisma. They are two nobodies, but they're two nobodies on stage, which means from the get-go, it's a dream come true. That they happen to be funny and share an unrehearsed chemistry only helps the show.
As the show merrily rolls along, two friends are introduced: Heidi Blickenstaff, a Broadway-bound actress stuck on the "replacement understudy/ensemble/off-stage singer/dance captain/assistant stage manager track" and Susan Blackwell, an "unconventional" actress (she uses the term "handsome"). Like Jeff and Hunter, these two play themselves, and this unforced, easygoing camaraderie practically makes [title of show] a Disney musical: "dreams do come true." It's true that the next fifty minutes are best enjoyed by musical theater fans who will catch references both to Chess and Alice Ripley, but the history is played broadly, for audiences of any background. In "An Original Musical," it's funny enough that Jeff is goaded into writing by a jive-talking Blank Paper (Hunter), even if you don't catch the jokes about Broadway's "star-powered" decline. "Monkeys and Playbills" isn't just nostalgic for the golden years (Sail Away, Ride the Winds, Carnival in Flanders), but, thanks to Hunter, it's absurd, too ("See the monkey sail away on his speedboat!").
After an awkward "montage" of compressed jokes that are unfortunately forced, the play jumps to the post-Vineyard material (the new stuff), and it's here that [title of show] starts to build beyond simple good cheer. Now the show becomes about art and compromises: not far off from Sunday in the Park With George. The pressures of success cause splinters in the tight-knit group, and it's here that the metadrama takes on a second level: Heidi stands on stage as Hunter and Jeff discuss replacing her with a name, like Sutton Foster. Likewise, Jeff's music fractures just like his relationship with Hunter as the rhythmic "Change It, Don't Change It/Awkward Photo Shoot" examines the editing process that's necessary to get an OK for Broadway. The script and the actors within it are all organic, and these darker moments give the show dramatic weight while at the same time reassuring us (by their very presence on stage) that everything is going to be alright.
This optimism is [title of show]'s strongest feature, for it uses the form that it's invented (or at least perfected) to address common issues. There's no giant chorus numbers filled with flappers, no big orchestras--just the very funny Larry Pressgrove on keyboards--which means that even on the Broadway show, there's opportunity for intimacy and honesty. "Die Vampire, Die!" dresses it up in comedy, but those insecurities--they're the same ones we all face. And the final two songs, "A Way Back to Then" and "Nine People's Favorite Things" are both warm, positively glowing songs that take real memories and craft them into real songs. It's a reminder that beneath the bright lights of Broadway, there are real people, too, and it doesn't all have to be loud and glamorous to make us feel something.
Friday, July 18, 2008