(10 points if you can name the musical referenced in the post’s title).
I awoke bright eyed and bushy-tailed in anticipation for the day. Last month, I received a quick IM from Sarah about meeting up with some of the blog crew who were going to be in town. Though I sadly missed the last gathering back in August (I think…? or was it July? Ugh. These decades…) there was nothing stopping me from going in for some unbelievably genial conversation with a little alcohol on the side. Two days earlier, I had also received a message from a friend from college, Russ, who as a member of TDF said that he was going to the matinee of [title of show] and would I care to join him. In my euphoria, I said “Yes.”
Anyway, now I had the opportunity to take in the first new musical of the Broadway season, the little show that could, trekking from the New York Musical Theatre Festival, climbing up the mountain to the Lyceum on 45th Street and Broadway.
I arrived in NY around quarter after one in the afternoon. I generally take the Metro North into the city – it’s efficient and I can connect with the shuttle to Times Square to blaze a trail through maps and cameras and the stodgy awestruck tourists who instantaneously make me feel like a territorial native. Met up with Russ, who I haven’t seen in a couple of years, and we headed on over to the Lyceum.
Confessional: I had listened to the cast album when it first came out. I appreciated the cleverness, but it didn’t stick with me as I thought it would. This was when it had closed off-Broadway. There were grumblings of Broadway happenings, but the cynic-who-has-seen-it-all side of me said “Naah, it’ll never happen.” Well, and Dewey defeats Truman to you too. End confessional.
Anyway, I started to get really excited to see the show. Several people told me that they didn’t think I would enjoy it, which is why I was apprehensive of dropping what little funds I have on the show. Then Russ came through with his TDF offer. Well at these prices, I’ll be your ecdysiast, press agent and prophet. The excitement was made more palpable with the numerous people volunteering to promote the show around Times Square, handing out flyers promoting the show to passersby. When one gave me one, Russ said we were already seeing the show. The kid looked like he won the lottery. That sort of grassroots-guerrilla optimism makes me feel, I don’t know what exactly the word I would use here. Happy? Too genial. Content? Not enough chutzpah. Rhapsodic? Well not yet. But getting there. But I digress…
Well, my enthusiasm grew tenfold when we reached the mezzanine. Our usher, a diminutive middle aged mom, immediately asked us with great fervor if this was our first time seeing the show. We said yes. And she let out a sigh “Ohhhhhh, I wish I could sit and watch your reactions!!” She then proceeded to tell us that we would love it, with the passion usually reserved for a proud stage mother. Deciding that at 90 minutes without an intermission, I should use the facilities just for good measure, I happened into a second conversation with the usher. This time we discussed Souvenir and espoused the virtues of its dynamo star Judy Kaye (and that they should have cut back on the Cosme McMoon solos). It was upon the entrance of an enthused [tos]ser (as they’re called, not being a crass Brit here) who was seeing the show that I learned of the true extension of the grassroots campaign. The mezzanine was filled with many patrons who had been convinced by the eager volunteers to come see the show. Then I took my seat as maestro (and fifth cast member) Larry Pressgrove took his spot at the keyboard onstage.
How does one go about describing [title of show]? It’s not that easy I guess. I’ve heard it called a musical about people writing a musical about writing a musical. The show’s charms lie in its simplicity, quirky charm and personality, and most importantly, its heart. I could on and on about the things that make the show so engaging for an audience. Written by Hunter Bell (book) and Jeff Bowen (score), the show stars these two gentlemen and their friends Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell, all playing themselves. The ninety minute show, which zips along at a most enjoyable pace (kudos to Michael Berresse’s nimble direction and choreography), follows the creation of the musical we are seeing, a meta-musical and one of the most original of all original musicals. It starts with the simple idea of writing about what they know (which includes horribly tacky television and the occasional cult flop musical) through the opening on Broadway. The musical, small in its scope and its size (four chairs and an onstage piano are all they need. Well… that and a turkey burger), is a continuation of the back-stage musical.
When I say, I loved it, part of it is that I felt as if I was watching a musical that had been written by people I know. I am fortunate to know many creative people like the four actors onstage, personalities both eccentric and endearing. (I also know the other kind; the ones that suck your soul dry with their solipsism, thankfully they stayed home). The talent, the humor, the warmth, the insecurities; all of these elements can be identified with anyone who’s ever taken a theatre course. In an era where it’s in vogue to have tongue-in-cheek musicals that make fun of the genre, it was really refreshing to find a tongue-in-cheek musical that celebrates it. There is a lot of heart onstage at the Lyceum and it is reason to rejoice.
Watching [tos], there are many things to love. Jeff collects playbills of shows that run 50 performances or less. Susan is the witty, self-deprecating, self-proclaimed “corporate whore,” Heidi is the one with established Broadway street cred and is the strongest singer of the quartet. And Hunter is Hunter, quite possibly the bravest individual onstage (with poor grammar). Two of the best running gags in this musical comedy: the drag queen names (Lady Footlockah, Tulita Pepsi, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, etc.) and the answering machine messages. The latter is especially amusing as it provides cameos for many of the great contemporary divas, with each message getting successively funnier and funnier. Favorites included Vicki Clark’s breathless ramble about her son’s schedule, Patti LuPone’s strident request that the gentlemen stop bothering her and quite possibly the best of them all, Christine Ebersole – and you have to see the show in order to find out what she says…
Then there is the score. They have had fun musicalizing the text book moments, the opening number, the want/am song, etc. However there are three numbers that stood out above the rest. “Die, Vampire, Die” a treatise on the varying insecurities and voices in our lives that stop us dead in our tracks when we try to be anything creative. Whether it be a rival, a family member or friend, or more significantly, ourselves. I think we’ve all been plagued by such things that set us back from doing. We live in our heads and suffer as a result. “A Way Back to Then” examines those moments in our childhood when the seed was planted; the moment where a person realizes what they want to do more than anything (also before the harsher realities of life and specifically the entertainment industry can darken the sunniest of dispositions). For Heidi it involves her Kool-Aid stained lip and Andrea McArdle belting on the wi-fi. Touching, nostalgic and incredibly spot on and beautifully sung.
Then came the eleven o’clock number. “Nine People’s Favorite Thing.” In much of the press, message boards and blog posts about the show, this is the phrase that I see most. The gist of the number is that they would rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing. (a quote, I might add). Roxie attended the opening night of the show back in July and told me almost immediately about the response the show received, including a full-out Routledge (to help the uninformed: our word for a mid-show standing ovation, named for Pat R). You can read her report on the festivities here. The song expresses emotionally what many of us in our early creative minds like to think – and I for one say about myself, my blog and anything else I may do: let it be the Rice Krispie treat.
The show, in spite of its incredibly obscure and remote references to various shows and individuals, (If you haven’t enjoyed Mary Stout on “Remember WENN,” you have no idea what you’re missing. Non sequitur, that isn’t really a non-sequitur: Rupert Holmes. AMC. Somebody! Release that show on DVD!) does manage to have some mainstream appeal in its underlying ideas regarding art, the creative process and the idealistic dreams vs. the darker realities of venturing into a career in show business. Sadly though, in spite of positive reviews and a cult following to die for, the show has been struggling. The box office numbers have been grim, as they’ve barely filled a third of a Lyceum Theatre each week. The show is set to close on October 12, though the cast and fans aren’t going down without a fight. There is a grassroots campaign to bring people into the theatre, get the [tos] crowd on Ellen and help rescind the closing notice. (Truth be told, the show probably could have had a decent run at an off-Broadway house or at one of the smaller Broadway venues like the Helen Hayes or Circle in the Square). I wish them well and hope I can get back one more time.
After the show, I ventured around Times Square for a bit, stopping in at the lame duck Virgin Megastore for a quick browse before heading to a preplanned dinner at Sardi’s with fellow bloggers. As Doug put it at the dinner table, it was my virgin experience at the famed restaurant. Truth be told, and this may surprise many of you, I never really felt the need to go in. A pilgrimage to the defunct Mark Hellinger Theater is a necessity, but Sardi’s no? Yes, I have bizarre priorities. But don’t we all?
Anyway, I got to visit with Lady Iris, whose mother had come into Texas for a spell, Steve on Broadway and his partner Doug. I met two bloggers for the first time: Chris from Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals and Alicia from Things You’ll Learn to Love About Me. And the good times rang out like freedom. After ordering my requisite White Russian, I opened the menu at which I stared at for about 10 minutes before realizing I had to order. The ancient waiter hovered over me until I picked something. What I wanted they didn’t have, so I ended up picking something at random. It’s always fun getting together with the blog crew catching up on what people have seen, their thoughts on current shows and the generally genial nature of the experience. Plans to see Wicked in Amsterdam? Only if the mind is altered kids…
The blog crew dispersed, most going to see evening shows. However, the night didn’t end there for me. I didn’t plan on seeing an evening show, but met up with my friend Matt who was down to meet friends. We trekked up to White Plains to meet other mutual friends, where I got to discuss title of show with a couple of people who were friends of friends and theatre lovers as well. (Got it?) The night ended with Tina Fey – as Sarah Palin on SNL (it’s sad that she is the only reason to tune in) and then a couple episodes of 30 Rock. If only every day could be as perfect, no?
And then I woke up…