[title of show]
music/lyrics by Jeff Bowen, book by Hunter Bell
New York, New York • June 17 – open-ended
[tossers]: the apt moniker for fans of the little-show-that-could, [title of show], which made its Broadway debut on June 17 at the Lyceum Theatre. Whoever came up with that fan name clearly is not British, or if so, thinks he or she is just as clever and witty as the show itself – which is to say, not very. [tos] is a show about making a show, something we’ve seen many times before in incantations which were much more joyful and funny and that offered some kind of artistic merit (42nd Street comes to mind). Here, creator-stars Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) outline their not entirely original journey from the inkling of a show possibility (as they sit squandering time away in their respective New York apartments), to the festival circuit, to their hit off-Broadway run, to finally hitting the big time on “The Broadway,” as they like to call it. I hear that the blog and YouTube campaign launched to create buzz for the show – in which they created a video-log of their attempts to approach individual Broadway theatres in a charming effort to convince them to produce the show – was a hoot, but unfortunately, it’s only referred to in passing in the show. Why they didn’t utilize film projections so as to incorporate them is beyond me. It may have added some much needed production value – and genuine humor – to the show.
Now don’t get me wrong: Bowen and Bell are endlessly endearing in their love for all things musical theatre, and their earnestness to create a successful show with artistic merit is awfully admirable. But when they sing of their plight to create “An Original Musical” and later compare their own “risk-taking” to that of such renowned and innovative creative teams as Kander and Ebb (The Rink) and Comden and Green (On the Town), they simply point toward their own creative inadequacies. Bowen’s tunes, while catchy for the most part, are not really theatrical, and Bell’s book is simply uninspired and not as funny as he wants – and needs – it to be. There are constant jokes that center on obscure musical references that you’ll only get if you’re “in the know” (Bowen sings lyrics from the notorious flop, Henry, Sweet Henry, for example) or if you’ve just starred in a community theatre production of Into the Woods (there are at least three lyrical references to that Sondheim fairy tale favorite). The guys are charming and full of energy, though, and equally so are their two eager friends who round out the cast: Heidi Blickenstaff, the powerhouse voice, and Susan Blackwell, the quirky character actress. I’d like to say that the cast is so much better than the material they are performing, but that would only do them a disservice.
What it really comes down to is this: [tos] has no business being on Broadway. Bowen and Bell’s amazing persistence and determination defied all odds, but my guess is that this 4-man-4-chairs-1-keyboard show won’t be there for long. What is essentially a tiresome variant on the Forbidden Broadway-style that would (and did) happily succeed ensconced in a cozy off-Broadway house, maintains only a niche following here; the majority of the tourist-spectators (which only filled half the auditorium when I was there on a Monday – a night which doesn’t afford much competition as the majority of Broadway theatres are dark) frequently turn to their just-as-bewildered companions with a mystified look as if to say, “We’re paying $100 for this? Monkeys and vampires? I don’t get it.”
Now before all you [tossers] get your “I heart Hunter!” panties in a bunch, let me clarify: I in no way want to dictate what kinds of shows make it to the Great White Way. But I’m looking at it from a mainly producing point of view: [tos] is a show that has a niche audience. It is not for the vast majority of audiences, and it therefore shouldn’t be in a Broadway house because it has no real chance of filling it night after night. I don’t know why “off-Broadway” has such a dirty connotation as though it’s not as great of an accomplishment to have your show running in a small house that is filled to capacity every night! But [tos] is a show that needs the small house because audiences must be able to see facial expressions: the conspiratorial winks, glances, and asides of the cast. You simply do not feel as involved in the show and its characters when you are sitting up, up, up and away in the balcony. In a smaller, filled house, everyone feels “in” on the jokes because of the close proximity to the actors, as well as the more communal feel created by an intimate theatre. If you’re playing to a niche crowd, wouldn’t you rather do it in that kind of environment instead of the colder, more distant atmosphere of a large Broadway house?
Broadway musicals come with expectations – fair or not – and if a work isn’t musically inventive, it should at the very least have some wonderfully unnecessary pyro (a la Carrie’s hands aflame), fabulously D-list celebs (ie. Drew Spamalot Lachey), or a roller-skating mermaid or two. If the production is gi-normous, it has nowhere to go but on Broadway – whether or not it deserves the actual acclaim of being a “Broadway show.” [tos] is simply not big enough or good enough to merit taking up space on The Broadway. I’m a self-proclaimed musical theatre whore and I don’t get [tos]’s cult-like draw. [title of show], far from being my favorite thing, is not even my ninth favorite thing – but it might have been under more intimate circumstances.