Volume 75, Number 43 | March 15 -21 2006

Carol Rosegg

The cast of the metamusical “[title of show]” clockwise from left: Heidi Blickenstaff as Heidi, Susan Blackwell as Susan, Hunter Bell as Hunter, and Jeff Bowen as Jeff.

In ‘[title of show]’, the play’s the thing

By Rachel Fershleiser

The Vineyard Theatre is doing something right. As playwrights and producers wring their hands about jukebox musicals, octogenarian audiences, and competition from the Internet and cable TV, the Union Square nonprofit is racking up the hits. Its best-known production, the potty-mouthed puppet show “Avenue Q,” moved to Broadway, won the Best Musical Tony, and continues to bring in hip young audiences, even at $101.25 a seat.

The latest Vineyard success — just extended through April 8th — is the impossible-to-classify metamusical “[title of show].” The oddly named piece stars longtime friends Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen as longtime friends Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen and chronicles their experiences writing a musical about chronicling their experiences writing a musical. This gimmicky premise should by all rights be irritating, trite, cloying, and totally obnoxious. Instead it is honest, funny, sincere, charming, and more enjoyable than anything I’ve seen on stage in ages. Do these boys spend ninety minutes navel-gazing? Absolutely. But I gazed right along with them until I fell down the rabbit hole.

“We wrote what we wanted to write,” actor/composer Bowen says, “and hoped that people would come along for the ride.”

The words “ride” and “journey” came up often as I spoke with the two thirty-something theatre fanatics after last Wednesday’s show, and you can’t fault Bell and Bowen for feeling as though they just stepped on the magic carpet.

With only three weeks before the submission deadline for the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival, the friends and frequent collaborators decided they would complete an entry no matter what. Book writer Bell — the red-headed, affable one — and composer/lyricist Bowen — the wry, handsome one — were stumped for ideas. Struck by the poignancy of the creative process, they wrote a show about their own attempts to write one, packed it with obscure, musical theatre references, and sent it in.

“We just mailed it,” says Bell “and they called us and said ‘what the hell is this?’ But then they gave us a shot.”

“Getting into the festival was the mind-blowing thing,” adds Bowen. “Everything after that, well, our minds were already blown.”

Their show-within-a-show dramatizes everything that happened in real life: a performance at said festival (“The king’s festival!” the two squeal onstage — an “Into the Woods” joke for the theatre nerds in the audience), acclaim from critics, interest from producers, and, of course, a run at the Vineyard.

“We’ve been big fans of the Vineyard,” explains Bell, “mostly because they have such a wide scope of things they present. You can’t really get pigeonholed as being highfalutin or really low-brow — they do both ends of the spectrum.” (A performer through and through, Bell raises his Southern-tinged voice to act out “highfalutin” and drops it ominously on “low brow.”)

As of now, no one knows what comes next for the little show that could, but signs point to the possibility of something big. Last Wednesday, as the fictional Bell and Bowen dreamed their big Broadway dreams on stage, Broadway producer Barry Weissler sat behind me with League of American Theatres and Producers president Jed Bernstein, discussing the feasibility of a commercial run. Talk about a show within a show.

There’s buzz that the musical’s referential style is too “insider” to translate into commercial success, but the writers aren’t concerned. “A lot of people have asked us ‘do you worry about target audience, demographics?’ Not really,” says Bell, who refuses to be fazed by the rare moments when the laughs don’t come. “A painter just starts painting,” he says. “He doesn’t think ‘I hope everybody likes purple.’”

Artistic independence is a recurring theme in “[title of show].” One of the show’s most universal moments — a number called “Die Vampire, Die!”— should resonate with anyone who has ever tried to create anything: “You have a story to tell/a novel you keep in a drawer/You have a painting to paint/but you’re lazy like an old French whore” sings Susan Blackwell, who along with Heidi Blickenstaff rounds out the charismatic cast. Vampires, she tells us, are creeping thoughts “filling you with doubt, insecurity, ‘bout what your art should be.” Dancing like bats, the quirky performers quickly kill them off.

Written with passion and an impressive avoidance of cliché, the show seems to have found its cultural moment. As memoirs glut bookstores, blogs crowd the Internet, and reality TV packs the airwaves, it is to be expected that “Two Nobodies in New York” (the title of the opening song) would get stage time for their story, too. And if they haven’t blurred the line between theater and real life enough, the cast is even blogging about the experience of putting on “[title of show].”

Still, both writers assert that the musical is not a reality program. “It’s scripted. We’re acting,” Bowen points out. “I had to join Equity.”

Bell, a fan of reality TV, adds, “We’re not doing a documentary, but it is a little peephole into real behavior, and that I find interesting. It goes hand in hand with the culture of weblogs, and the millions of reality shows. The fun part is, in ours we get to sing songs.”

“[Title of show]” runs through April 8th at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street. Tickets are available at www.theatermania.com.

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