“[title of show]” could have been self-referential and self-indulgent. It’s (literally) a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical. But despite the crazy level of self-consciousness—director Weston Gaylord ‘15 described it as an “‘Inception’-level of meta”—“[title of show]” manages to balance its mind-bending concept with hilarity, poignancy and a sincere depiction of friendship and artistic struggle.
As the show opens, Hunter and Jeff, writer and composer, sit on a minimalistic stage discussing the possibility of entering the New York Musical Theater Festival. Their idea, to write a musical about themselves writing a musical, becomes the show that unfolds. The two recruit Susan and Heidi, two actress friends, and begin the process of writing down their lives in musical form. From a rocky beginning, when Hunter sings a song dressed as a mocking sheet of blank paper, the show culminates emotionally in a glorious number where Heidi, played by a magnificent Anneka Kumli ‘13, sings about her childhood dream to be on Broadway.
The original show featured Hunter Bell (the writer), Jeff Bowen (the composer), Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, as well as comically shunned accompanist Larry Pressgrove, all acting as themselves. The actors in this production, quite appropriately, appear as if they are playing themselves as well. Jeff (Cody Behan ‘15) and Heidi portray an easy, natural friendship, best represented when they text each other good drag queen names. Susan (Katie Straub ‘14) says what no one else will say and does so with a biting wit and an endearing willingness to go along for the ride. Hunter (Ph.D. student Buddy Gardineer) and Jeff have a great chemistry and draw energy from each other with their precise comedic delivery and reactions.
As the four characters struggle through the promise of success and the bite of failure, “[title of show]’s” reflexivity is what ultimately makes the show funny, challenging and thoughtful. The strongest and wittiest parts occur when actors acknowledge key changes, props and difficulties finding a note. At one point, a montage song is stopped so that Susan can find her note on the piano. Even Larry, the accompanist, finally gets permission to speak when Jeff reassures him that they worked it out with the union. The guys take their shirts off and the girls make out in a self-conscious effort to appeal to a broader audience.
“The show creates itself,” said Behan, who is both producing and acting in “[title of show].” “You don’t have an elaborate set. You don’t have these high production values. It’s bare bones. It just kind of appears as you are making it. I knew that working with good artists would be what brought this alive.”
Songs like “Die, Vampire, Die!” highlight the show’s whimsical quality as well as its decision to take seriously the doubts and insecurities that plague the creative process. As Hunter, Jeff and Heidi swoop around her in black cloaks and sing backup, Susan sings about the different kinds of “vampires” that take their toll on creativity and encourages the audience to “ pull your novel out of that sock drawer” because “you have a story to tell.”
For Gaylord, “[title of show]” is so compelling because it places humor and honesty side by side.
“The show moves from the outer limits of silliness and campiness to what are very tender, real, genuine moments. There are moments that really set the meta aside and say here we go, we’re four people, we are trying to be creative people in the world and understand what that means.”
For laughs, irreverence, and a bout of meta that will make your head spin, check out “[title of show]” this weekend in the Elliot Programming Center. It runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday with varying start times, including a late show on Friday (check out the event page on Facebook for more details).