(title of show) is the open-ended generic gateway to the creative process that premiered 8 years ago this September at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. With music & lyrics written by Jeff Bowen and a book by Hunter Bell, this one-act musical is also a minimalist de-construction on the creative sparkle that can be ignited through friendship - both on and off the stage of life and existence that we all populate.
This unusual production actually chronicles it's own creation, which gives it a flavor of Fellini's classic 8 ½ and more than an existential edge to the action as it follows the struggles and tribulations of the author & composer/lyricist and their two actress friends during the initial creative period, along with subsequent events leading up to the show's production.
The original play ran off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006, earning a second limited run the same year; eventually landing at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre in 2008. Writer/stars Bowen and Bell all won Obie Awards for their work on the off-Broadway production, and Bell was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical.
Conceived after Bell received an announcement for the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival, with the deadline just 3-weeks away, Bell began drafting the script with Bowen writing the lyrics and music. Due to the severe time constraints and because the Festival required only the submission of a script plus four songs, Bowen wrote most lyrics without any accompanying melody, planning to finish the songs later.
The two vowed to write an original musical rather than construct an adaptation of an existing play or movie and discovered quickly their conversations about what to write were more interesting than what they were actually writing. As the idea to document the creation of the show itself became clearer, they expanded the script based on their respective writing experiences.
This has in turn opened a creative latitude and the musical has become a post-modern work-in-progress, with updates and changes to each new production reflecting the circumstances the cast and show have experienced.
(title of show) is part of The Midland Center for the Arts 'Off-Center Stage' project, which offers a variety of venues and opportunities for volunteers to change the course of live theatre and expand theatre arts offerings with cutting-edge pieces not included during the traditional main season. Directed by Andrew Southwell, this production will happen with performances on Sept 27, 28, 29th at The Little Theatre at Midland Center for the Arts..
Emily Anderson carries one of the key roles in this upcoming production and when asked about the qualities and elements involved with this novel approach to playwriting, she immediately points to the construction of the narrative. “The Tony nominated book for this production is so unique, so conversational, that I think it will be a relatively new experience for many of our audience members,” she reflects.
“It's written in the same way that good friends actually talk to each other, curse words and all; and it has a bit of a Seinfeld feel to it because it's raw and real and not too 'cleaned up'. Granted these characters are theatre-nerds, so their conversations revolve around who and what's on Broadway at the moment, but it's still very 'real'. As a matter of fact, when the lighting designer came to see a run through, he couldn't tell when we were speaking lines and when we had dropped the scene and were just talking to each other normally!”
Are there special difficulties or challenges with staging such an unusual production? “The show is very minimalist,” notes Emily. “And it's performed on mostly a bare stage. It's billed as 'four chairs and a keyboard' so that doesn't give you a whole lot to work with as far as visual interest, so the show has to depend on the actors and chemistry between them, along with the songs and musical interplay, to keep the ball rolling and keep the audience engaged.”
As for pivotal qualities about the play that will appeal to audiences, its unusual construction is key. “This show will hopefully be unlike anything anyone has seen before in this area. It's 90 minutes with no intermission and it's a relatively new piece, having run on Broadway in 2008, that pushes the boundaries with some adult content and a minimalist treatment. It's also a great commentary on the power of friendship and collaboration - two things that I have learned a lot about in my 15 years of being involved in the theatre.”
Obviously, distinguishing and rendering this type of verbal interplay can be challenging; so what has been the most difficult component involved with bringing a production of this nature to the stage?
“The biggest challenge has been to make sure that the show is well-rehearsed without losing the sense of spontaneity, which is a big part of the 'feel' of the show. Because it's so natural and real, the laughs have to be genuine, the little glances and friendly teasing - all of that needs to feel like they are happening for the first time, every time. “
Insofar as this play is also a musical, how do the musical renderings work in terms of carrying the story forward; and how does the caliber of the musical material hold up?
“The music in this production really helps to tell the emotional story of these two writers and their best friends,” explains Emily. “At the beginning of the show they're full of excitement at the possibilities of writing a show together; and as the show comes together, the music is more hopeful that everything they've wished for might actually be realized. But then they have some creative arguments and the music is full of tension. By the end of the show, they're ready to put their production out there and the music is more peaceful and contemplative.”
“The greatest part of the music is that along with of the emotion, there's a great deal of fun being had with the lyrics and the understanding,” continues Emily. “You might hear a little bit of Into the Woods in the underscoring, which is a wink to those people who, like the creators, are obsessed enough with musical theatre that they'd recognize it immediately.”
“Then there are some delightfully silly lyrics like, “At least my nose could take her nose in a cage match of noses'. As we go through rehearsals we keep commenting, 'That is my favorite line of the whole show'….no, wait, that line is my favorite line of the whole show.”
“We've' all had the amazing experience of being able to do a show with our best friends,” concludes Emily. “And we've joked that 'cast parties' will be nothing more than our usual Saturday evening get-togethers. There's something really special in being onstage with the people who you trust the most. This show was written about a friendship like ours, so that's inspiring to us as actors. We're having a heck of a lot of fun up there and we just hope we can pass that along to the audience.”
Tickets for (title of show) are $18.00 and available by going to mcfta.org or phoning the box office at 989-631-8250.