So, in this 2006 musical about making a musical, a pair of composer-lyricists, Jeff and Hunter (Jeffrey Landman and Micah McCain) is hanging around Chelsea, not doing much. Speaking on the phone, one of them dividing his attentions between Internet porn and Doc Hollywood on HBO, they are three weeks from a deadline to submit to the New York Festival of Musicals.
With nothing better to do than watch their youth slip away, they vow to come up with something for the festival, just so they can say they didn't tumble further into the abyss of New York anonymity by missing another deadline. Jeff and Hunter are modeled on Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, the co-authors of this musical, oddly named [title of show], lifted from the festival application form.
Celebration Theatre is presenting the Los Angeles premiere of [title of show], which was indeed submitted to, and accepted into the New York Festival of Musicals, before opening off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006, and making its Broadway debut two years later.
The first scene is entirely about coming up with an idea about a musical, and every dreadful permutation is recorded. These include glimpses into the lives of Bowen and Bell, who share a vague impulse to create something meaningful, or successful, or perhaps both.
An examination of that impulse becomes the idea — perhaps the only triumph of the horse before the cart that exists in the American musical theater. The idea becomes the friction between Jeff (and his desire to follow some truth) and Hunter, who has Broadway on the brain and can only see neon and standing ovations. He's the kind of guy who throws the word professional around the room, referring to a way of doing things rather than a conviction for what is being done, or any serious reflection upon why it's being done.
Their friends Susan and Heidi (Jennifer R. Blake and Carey Peters, respectively) are drawn into the mix as added performers, also adding friction between burned-out diva Susan, now working as a corporate secretary, and her effervescent female upstart partner/rival. Heidi and Susan are based on the show's original performers, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell.
With a set of four mismatched chairs and an electric piano for accompanist Larry (Gregory Nabours) — who weighs in on occasion, having been granted permission to say a line or two — the production is about as antiglitz (aping the New York versions under Michael A. Shepperd's capable direction) as a show with Broadway on its mind can be.
The risk of myopic artsiness is offset by the characters' amiability, blended with the obvious satire of their pretensions and their rigors of creation.
There's something deeply obnoxious about the number of times Hunter, played by McCain as a big, goofy Southern queen, intones the word Broadway! at every stupid idea that spews from anybody's lips. That obnoxiousness is softened somewhat by his "research" — a cardboard box filled with Playbill magazines — programs of every failed musical that they might learn something from. The insider Broadway references could make any show-queen salivate.
Of course their idea is accepted by the festival. Of course the musical is picked up by the Vineyard Theatre. And we know it went to Broadway as the 2008 oddity of the year. That's now all in the show.
Naturally, it's Hunter who speaks of replacing unknown Heidi with star Sutton Foster, to up their Broadway chances. That's what professional means, even though Heidi certainly shares in the credit for having conceived the work. Hunter turns into a physically larger but no less vicious parody of Bob Fosse in A Chorus Line — a graduate of the Amoral Cruelty is Necessary school of artistic achievement. This brings us to the clash between authenticity and commerce, which is the essence of the clash between Jeff and Hunter — and why this musical has such an eccentric appeal. To understand where the creators really stand on this issue, note that Heidi Blickenstaff portrayed herself — on Broadway. You might also pay attention to the lyrics of one particularly sweet song, "Nine People's Favorite Thing": "I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing, than 900 people's ninth favorite thing."
Among the ensemble, the performers share a vivacious appeal, and all do justice to Ameenah Kaplan's sassy choreography; yet only Peters has a voice to remember. Landman's bald-pated, gentle Jeff comes off with a wise perspective on authenticity, loyalty and success. Which may be why his musical kept rising in a profession and a city famed for opportunity, and a preoccupation to burst bubbles. Jeff goes on the soap-bubble flight hanging on to his sanity with a shrug. That alone is so rare, it's worth watching.
ASCAP is sponsoring a local new musical–development program as part of the local Festival of New American Musicals. Many of the musicals in the festival were chosen from productions already scheduled at various venues across the region, and the festival, by including them, simply drew focus to the genre it's trying to nurture and celebrate. The ASCAP program, however, is more proactive, offering public, staged readings of works in development.
Over at Barnsdall Park's Gallery Theater, I saw a reading of Michael Koonan and Christopher Diamond's Dani Girl, slated to premiere in Canada next year after having already been workshopped in New York at the Cherry Lane Theatre, in Washington at the Kennedy Center, in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theatre, as well as at ASCAP/Disney Musical Theater Workshop.
This is probably the inverse of [title of show]. It's the difference between creating a musical while having no idea of what to write about versus writing a musical front-loaded with themes on the meaning and meaninglessness of life. God and Jesus play some part in Dani Girl, as part of a fantasia based on the life and death of a 10-year-old trying to fathom the point of her incurable leukemia. The title role was read/sung by Jenna Rosen, and her kid friend in the hospital, Marty, was played by Michael William Arnold.
Jason Graae stepped into multiple roles (God/Cancer/Father) with a kind of dexterity and animation that tugs against the inherently maudlin underpinnings. Among the fantasias is a journey inside the bloodstream of a toy bunny stricken with cancer, to confront the disease, and its Creator, in order to make sense of mortality. To us, the difference between being struck down at 10 versus 100 is all the difference in the world. Perhaps to God, those 90 intervening years are just a blip, and we're simply trying to ponder grief over something as arbitrary as a blade of grass wilting in a drought, or a leaf falling. Perhaps God, if He's still alive — which this musical places in doubt — doesn't credit human accomplishment or even the gift of life with the weight we do. Perhaps that's our myopia: our unwarranted conviction that we're supposed to be given a fair spin to have a few kids, or to write a few musicals.
[title of show] | Music and lyrics by JEFF BOWEN, book by HUNTER BELL | Presented by the CELEBRATION THEATRE, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. | Through Sept. 5 | (323) 957-1884
FESTIVAL OF NEW AMERICAN MUSICALS | At various venues | Through Aug. 21 | lafestival.org