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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
During dress rehearsals and preview performances, a new musical constantly adds, deletes, and changes songs. This can be stressfully exhilarating for the composer, who has to crank out fresh material, and for actors, who have to learn it on the spot.
But when you're the composer and the actor, you face twice the intensity. Just ask Jeff Bowen (above, second from left), the composer and co-star of Now. Here. This. at the Vineyard Theatre. The show began previews on March 7, and before its official opening on March 24, he says it "may be totally different every night."
On March 6, one day before audiences arrived, Bowen decided he needed a new song for the moment his character realizes he's afraid of being himself. "There was a song that had a different temperature," he recalls. "We needed a song that said the same thing, but at a different temperature."
So in less than thirty hours, Bowen wrote the song "Kick Me," memorized it, worked with his director to stage it, and then performed it for a crowd.
That high-speed rewriting suits the show, which Bowen created with director-choreographer Michael Berresse, musical director Larry Pressgrove, and co-stars Heidi Blickenstaff, Hunter Bell, and Susan Blackwell. (Blackwell and Bell also wrote the book.)
In 2008, this team struck gold with [title of show], a Broadway musical about people writing a musical. Now. Here. This. is equally witty and self-referential, with all four actors playing characters based on themselves. But while the former explores the power of creative impulses, the latter tackles being present in your own life, focusing on what's happening now instead of worrying about the past or future. The characters all have strategies to avoid the present, and we see them trying to change their behavior and connect with the current moment.
Fittingly, if Bowen isn't fully present in rehearsals and performances, then he won't grasp when it's time for a new song. "We're trying to lead by example," he says. "We hope that we, by doing this, can be more present in our own lives."
That's not always easy. When he performed "Kick Me" for the first time, Bowen was torn between writing and acting. He recalls, "I'm trying desperately to keep my writer hat off, but it's nearly impossible because I'm trying to remember the lyrics. I'm singing lyrics in the wrong place, and I'm making up rhymes as I go.
"But still, I really can't get the answers I need as a composer unless the performer is on task. As an actor, I have to make sure I'm above 90% in accuracy and investment and focus. Otherwise, I'll never be able to understand if something works or not."
As tricky as this process might be, Bowen plans to keep tweaking the show. "You have to modify it," he says. "We'll get tired of a joke, or someone will die that the joke is about. We have to stay on top of pop culture and history and science. We always laugh when people say, 'The show is frozen. You can't change it.' We're like, "We'll change what we need to change!"
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Cast photo (L to R: Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff) by Carol Rosegg