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"Show" People

Date: Jul 14, 2008


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In Britain, the term "tosser" is roughly synonymous with a mild American pejorative like "idiot" or "jerk." On Broadway, "tosser" is now the more-or-less official name for a rabid fan of [title of show] (that's tos for short, hence "tosser"), the new meta-musical by, about and starring virtual unknowns Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, which opens at the Lyceum this week.

You read right: [title of show] is a meta-musical, not a mega-musical. That means no helicopters, hairspray or kicklines, just four chairs, four actors and a keyboard. So just what is this tiny show about its own creation, which began at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival and later had a hit Off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre, doing on the Great White Way?

"God knows we've had many conversations about what is possible in this bigger space," says Jeff Bowen, who wrote the music and lyrics and stars as himself. "We could trick it out. But really what made the most sense is to make it one flat playing space, much like the original show--pretty barebones. The words and the ideas are the pyrotechnics of the show, and we have to make sure that nothing's distracting from that."

Those "pyrotechnics" include an opening number called "Untitled Opening Number" and its humble follow-up, "Two Nobodies From New York" ("What if this dialog were set to music?/What if what we're saying could be said in a song?"), as well as such transparent ruminations "Tony Award Song," "I Am Playing Me" and "Secondary Characters." Perhaps the most self-reflexive number is the thrilling "Filling Out the Form," in which budding musical theatre auteurs Hunter and Jeff rush their proposal to the committee of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

This, in fact, is how [title of show] began.

"We got the email on April 14, 2004," Bowen recalls of the notice that New York was to host its first festival of new musicals. "My friends and I were all excited there was going to be such a thing, because we're all musical theatre dorks." The only catch: "It was three weeks to the deadline for submissions, so we very quickly started documenting what it was we were doing. That was what we wrote down and put down as songs."

Indeed, one of the festival's co-organizers, Kris Stewart, was charmed but uncertain about the script and four songs Bell and Bowen submitted--which were literally about two guys rushing to put together a script and four songs for NYMF by deadline.

"We met with Kris, and he said, 'Are you guys serious about this?' He couldn't really tell," Bowen recalls. "The first draft was way more about the festival than later drafts. It was very meta. But we promised him it would be funny, and that sold him. I guess that first year they were panicking a little, because they didn't get that many comedies, so ours filled that need. Hey, if that's all it takes!"

The show--which has been marshaled through its various versions by seasoned musical-theatre director Michael Berresse, and which early on acquired its two co-stars/subjects, the droll Susan Blackwell and the cheery Heidi Blickenstaff--is more than just funny, of course. It's also almost maniacally detailed in its references to Broadway history and trivia, since Bell and Bowen are the kind of aficionados who know the name of the composer of the little-seen-or-heard flop Kwamina.

The question, though, is how such a theatre trivia-packed show will play with non-tossers and non-show queens.

"It's funny, the people who challenge is the insider-ishness of the show are always insiders themselves," Bowen says. "Our director, Michael Berresse, really challenged us to be very specific and not do a general wash. And it's really true that the more specific we got, the more universal it became. It became a story about four people trying to realize a dream. We had audiences of regular people coming to the Vineyard and telling us, 'I don't know anything you're talking about, but I laughed my eyes out.' "

Bowen likened it to The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon's popular novel set in the world of comic book artists and publishers.

"I read that because a friend recommended it to me," Bowen says. "I know a lot about comics, so I knew all of the artists and editors they were referencing, but my friend knows nothing about comic books, so I wondered why he liked it so much. Well, it's actually a book about friendship."

Ah, friendship, friendship--just the perfect blendship. Don't know that lyric reference? Bowen assures you'll still enjoy the knowing, ironic, heartfelt world of [title of show].

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