July 19, 2008

Is "[title of show]" Too Exclusive?

People see shows for all kinds of reasons. Like because they adore the stars. Or because they feel an essential connection to the playwright or composer. But I wanted to see the new musical [title of show] because of its producers. Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller are the guys who brought Rent to Broadway. And Avenue Q. And In the Heights. They’re not infallible; they also brought the short-lived High Fidelity to Broadway. But they clearly have a knack for sussing out shows that appeal to the young and more diverse audiences that Broadway needs to survive in the 21st century. So I wanted to see what they were cooking up next.

I suspect [title of show] appealed to them because its creators, two thirtysomething guys named Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, are as crazy about theater as McCollum and Seller obviously are. [title of show] is a meta-musical that tells the story of how two musicals-loving gay guys and their best gal friends join together to put on a show, which is about two musicals-loving gay guys and their best gal friends who…well you get the picture.

The show was originally put together for the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004 (the title is a riff on the line on the Festival application form requesting the name of the show being submitted) where it won a cult following (diehard fans call themselves tossers) and they eventually got a run at The Vineyard Theatre in 2006. When that off-Broadway production ended, the show went viral with videos on YouTube (click here to see them). And each step has been incorporated into the evolving script.

Despite its openly ambitious goals (to break the mold of what a Broadway show should be, to reveal a kind of Stephen Colbert truthiness about what it takes to get a show on, to become a Tony contender) this show puts the mini in minimalism. There are just four actors—Bell, Bowen, the mordant Susan Blackwell and the cute Heidi Blickenstaff. They wear one set of street clothes each. And the set is little more than four mismatched chairs and a couple of props. The entire orchestra is just a guy on a keyboard.

Endlessly self-referential, [title of show] is chocked full of showbiz allusions (one running joke has the real voices of current Broadway divas leaving messages on an answering machine as they turn down a role in the show—the fun is trying to figure out who each one is before she identifies herself and then enjoying the way that what she says sends up her public persona). But at heart, [title of show] is about the desire to fulfill dreams and the struggle to maintain integrity while doing so. “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing” go the lyrics in one song.

Alas, they’re going to have to count me in the hundred people category. I see a lot of theater and so I got most (but not all) of the inside stuff and laughed at much of it. I thought Bell, Bowen, Blackwell and Blickenstaff were all appealing and amusing. And I could see how very much this show means to each of them. But part of what I so love about McCollum and Seller shows is their determination to reach out to people who aren’t theater geeks, to those who may think that theater isn't for them. This show strikes the theater populist in me as an us-and-them affair.

There were a lot of tossers at the performance I attended, including the man sitting next to me, who whooped after every song and kept glaring at me when I didn’t. It’s also been interesting to read the critical responses to the show. A few old-time traditionalists, like John Simon and Clive Barnes, were turned off but most of the reviewers love it. Of course, they’re insiders too; Roma Torre, the theater critic for the local cable channel NY1, is even a punch line in the show. But what are tourists from Tulsa or Tokyo (or even those folks from Teaneck who only see a show once or twice a year) to make of all this?

Now I know that not every Broadway show needs to appeal to every Broadway theatergoer. And this show should be applauded for trying something different and making Broadway cool for a hip segment of the forty-and-under crowd. And they may be even a bigger part than one might think since the society is increasingly showbiz savvy. My fellow blogger Chris Caggiano at Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals is a fan of the show and in his review (click here to read it) he reminds us that people were probably just as dubious that the similarly-themed A Chorus Line would appeal beyond the theaterati when it began its original15-year run back in 1975.

I confess that I don’t like being on the old-foggy side of this generation gap. But I do think [title of show] is a bit too smug. Still, there are lots of theater geeks in New York and around the world who will glorify in the exclusive secret-handshake nature of the show. [title of show] is for them and they’re bound to love it. But it may not be for your elderly aunt. Unless, of course, one of the reasons you see shows is that she’s the Auntie Mame who introduced you to the unpredictable craziness that is theater.


Esther said...

I saw A Chorus Line years ago, and from what I remember, it wasn't really insiderish. It was more about aspiring Broadway dancers talking about their lives, their backgrounds, their dreams - pretty universal stuff. I haven't seen [title of show] but from what everyone's written, it seems like there are more inside theatre jokes and references. Still, I'd love to see it.

Anonymous said...

Always glad to hear of another fan of TOS, if you are looking to see it again you should check out http://www.broadwaybox.com/shows/title_of_show_nyc_tickets.aspx I'm seeing it on Broadway for the 4th time next week!