With just three weeks to pull together an entry for a musical-theater festival, and a pile of blank paper taunting them, composer Jeff Bowen and librettist Hunter Bell reached for the material nearest at hand: themselves. Their show, [title of show], is a show about writing a show for a musical-theater festival. Thus, Onstage Jeff (played by Bowen) asks, “So I could say, ‘Wonder Woman for president,’ and that would get into our show?” Told by Onstage Hunter (played by Bell) that it would, he says, “Wonder Woman for president,” and, lo, it is in the show. Later, Hunter notices that a scene with their co-stars (Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell) has begun to feel long: Cue blackout.
On a stage that looks like some shit-hole rehearsal room—four chairs, bleak walls, radiator—the quartet of actors and their accompanist Larry Pressgrove (who is delighted to learn that the union contract allows him to speak) draw laughs even from people who don’t know who Marin Mazzie is. In a further meta-meta twist, the show is directed by Michael Berresse, who recently played the stern choreographer in the granddaddy of backstage musicals, A Chorus Line. Thanks to the tight pace he supplies and the story’s lo-fi, offhand charm, [title of show] is not one of those interesting failures, a play worth seeing in spite of some calamitous problem of design or execution. On the contrary, it’s closer to the opposite, and a much rarer creature: a show that succeeds on its own terms but still leaves you a little dismayed, for reasons its creators can and can’t control.
It’s not Bowen and Bell’s fault, for instance, that the Lyceum is not a time machine capable of whisking the entire audience back to 2004. That year, when the musical first reached the downtown stage, a show about putting on a show might not have felt all that fresh—not after 42nd Street and A Chorus Line and, for that matter, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Still, it would have caught Broadway’s postmodern moment, when a show with characters who call out their own key changes would have seemed a natural successor to the obnoxious fun of Urinetown. Today, though, the opening number about opening numbers feels like a retread of “The Song That Goes Like This” from Spamalot. The white-guy-playing-a-clichéd-black-character role dully recalls the Old Black Narrator from Gutenberg! The Musical! In fact, the entire setup of theater geeks in excelsis unhelpfully recalls The Drowsy Chaperone.
Bowen and Bell inch beyond their predecessors here and there; nobody else, as far as I know, has mused onstage about what it will be like to listen to their cast album ten years hence. Still, there’s something unattractive, and telling, about the show’s tone, and that’s something they can control. When Charlie Kaufman resorted to writing a screenplay about writing a screenplay to get Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief onto the screen, the result reeked of self-loathing. By contrast, Bowen and Bell’s musical congratulates itself early and often. They’re right to point out that their show is unusual among recent Broadway musicals in not being derived from a movie or book. But it’s still a little dubious to trumpet the bold originality of a show that has so many postmodern cousins so near at hand. The bar for originality, in Broadway circles, keeps on sinking.
If I’m hard on a musical that really is a good time, it’s partly because there’s so much real skill used in such unfortunate ways up there. Bowen has a sure touch for the right melody at the right time; Bell flashes comic gifts both as a writer (as when he ticks off drag-queen names that he spots around town, like “Minnie Van Rental”) and a performer (as when he makes a clumsy move on Jeff). For all their fantasizing about going on Ellen, they also want to keep their integrity. Toward the end, they sing that they’d rather be “nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth-favorite thing.” I just wish they were offering their nine people something other than the ten-thousandth celebration of stagestruck youngsters’ tender, tender Broadway dreams, and inside jokes that cognoscenti such as themselves must know are already played out. Two guys this talented have better things to do than help Broadway go on holding a mirror up to itself.