[Title of Show] Goes Beyond Meta, Establishing Completely Self-Referential Loop
The inside show for the serious musical theatre fan has landed in Seattle care of Balagan Theatre and Curly Stache Productions. [Title of Show], that most meta of musicals, began its life eight years ago when Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell decided to submit an entry for the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
The festival has gone on to become a key fixture in the musical theatre world nurturing such shows as Altar Boyz and Next to Normal. [Title of Show] has gone on to an off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre and finally a Broadway run and 2008 Tony nomination.
Perhaps that warranted prefacing with a spoiler alert. You see, [Title of Show] is the story of how two characters named Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell create a musical called [Title of Show] as a submission for NYMF that goes on to the Vineyard and Broadway. Yes, it’s that meta. More than that, it’s packed full of references to other musicals—but that’s almost become status quo for musicals of a certain ironic, self-knowing stripe from Urinetown to Shrek.
This production gets the job done with a solid cast. Ryan McCabe is particularly winning as Jeff. Chris DiStefano, as Larry, nails his few lines and stays emotionally connected throughout the show from behind the keyboard. The staging is necessarily simple but director Jeff Orton has some unobtrusive fun with the lights (no lighting designer is noted in the program). Claudine Mboligikeplani Nako as Heidi, the friend with the voice, earns her keep owning the room with the 11th hour number “A Way Back To Then.” Kate Jaeger as Susan, the funny friend, steals scenes willy-nilly.
For the first two-thirds of the show the suspense of whether or not Jeff and Hunter will get the musical finished before their three-week deadline is entirely believable. This is due in no small part to the fact that the musical we’re watching barely exists. A lack of conflict gives way to a lack of action, which gives way to complete inertia until “Die, Vampire, Die!” thrusts a bit of life into things. It’s a song for the blocked artist, for anyone whose striving exceeds his patience, or for any one of our 5.4-million long-term unemployed.
Then, suddenly success is theirs and we enter the first major rewrite to the show submitted to NYMF as the story continues to Off-Broadway. [Title of Show] is at its most engaging in the long haul from Off-Broadway to Broadway. An improbable but completely factual internet campaign brings success and its downside. Actual conflicts based in character traits come to a head. A song later it’s all over—again.
A show of this nature draws the serious musical theatre geeks for whom only an act of tremendous self-control prevents every musical from becoming a sing-a-long. They are prone to anticipating their favorite lines and killing the laughs for the neophytes. They also fill potential dead spaces meeting all but the most obscure musical theatre and pop-cultural references with their howls. Meanwhile the many New York City references (Hell’s Kitchen, Gristedes…) pass unnoticed in this production. Other lines that land flat also suggest that there may not be many more productions of this musical left.
While [Title of Show]’s window into musical development process may have historical and educational value in years to come the comic interest of the pop culture references is leaching out of the show. The day will arrive when much of the dialogue and lyrics will be entirely inscrutable.
This need not be the death of a show—try parsing the title song from Anything Goes. On the other hand Cole Porter this is not. Even the various updates, including references to current Tony nominees like Newsies, don’t fill the gaps. In some cases the spin cycle has caught up with the show, as with the obligatory reference to the famous flop Carrie, which recently was revived in a less-notable second flop. The self-referential loops leave one reeling.