Originality isn't what it used to be. Take "[title of show]," a Broadway musical - 95 minutes long, top ticket price $111.50 - about people writing about people writing a Broadway musical.
These [people] - who doubtless love [people] - must be the luckiest [people] in the [world].
Let me set the scene for you. Well, actually, there's not much of a scene to set: This is minimalism shoved down to the vanishing point.
We see four kitchen-style chairs and a kind of window looking out in the back, onto what seems a smeary drear of tenements (scenic design by [neil patel]).
There are four performers, dressed in what might be called street clothes. The costume design is by [chase tyler].
And, while we are about it, the lighting design is by [ken billington] and[jason kantrowitz].
There is also a cast of four: [hunter bell], [susan blackwell], [heidi blickenstaff] and [jeff bowen], plus two understudies, who shall here be [nameless], but still have to be paid.
Finally, there's [larry pressgrove], responsible for the music direction and arrangements, who sits at the back of the set, looking, perhaps understandably, morose, strumming his synthesizer, or whatever it is they do with synthesizers.
Then there is the show itself, which is all about the unique task of making an honest buck on Broadway.
The music and lyrics are by [bowen], the book is by [bell] and [i] would say that [rodgers & hammerstein] can rest undisturbed in their peaceful graves.
"[title of show]" is directed and choreographed - [i] didn't notice much in the way of choreography, but it was almost certainly there - by [michael berresse].
Seriously, I can take a fair amount of cuteness, and I can even accept a touch of the fey, having lived for many years in Chelsea.
But when the self-conscious and terminally cute and the pixie-like fey are all mixed up with self-congratulatory smugness, it results in a piece of - oh, let's call it garbage.
The music and lyrics are not up to much (in fact, they're up to very little), and the book - apart from the original concept of being on the musical's own assembly line - is slight.
What we're left with isn't a musical but a blueprint of how a musical might be written were it possible to write a musical in such a pseudo-Pirandellian fashion.
Which it isn't.
So why the half-star rating instead of zero? Well, the cast and director have obviously worked hard to get the show where it has gotten. And, as performers, they're all engaging revue-style personalities.
But [d.h. lawrence] or [james joyce] this is not. It's not even [e.e. cummings].
Nobody you ever heard of is in it. There aren’t really any characters to speak of, just four performers in everyday clothes acting like everyday people. (Everyday people who break into song and dance a lot.) The set consists of four mismatched chairs, a keyboard and a turkey burger. The darn thing does not even have a proper name.
What on earth is this show doing on Broadway?
That question is confronted head-on in the peculiar and quite adorable musical called “[title of show]” that opened on Thursday at the Lyceum Theater. The improbable story of this mini-musical’s inception, creation and determined effort to break into the theatrical big leagues is precisely what this obsessively and hilariously self-referential show is all about.
It was conceived during a far-from-scintillating phone conversation between two gay would-be musical theater luminaries, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, who were sitting around their little apartments one day watching their prime years waning. This historic moment is recreated early in the show.
“What are you doing?” Hunter, a freckly redhead with a Southern twang and a bit of belly, asks Jeff, who is more in the standard Chelsea mold.
“Working on a Web site for a client and listening to ‘Henry, Sweet Henry.’ What are you doing?”
“Half looking at Internet porn and half-watching ‘Doc Hollywood’ on HBO on Demand.”
Mr. Bell tears himself away from these consuming activities to suggest that they work up some new material to submit to a musical-theater festival. Mr. Bowen agrees, although the imminent arrival of the DVD of the first season of the 1970s television series “Wonder Woman” gives him pause.
But what to write about? Georges Seurat’s been done. So have jazz-age bad girls in Chicago. Ditto romance in the South Seas during World War II.
Obeying the rule laid down by beginning creative-writing teachers the world over, Mr. Bowen and Mr. Bell decide to write what they know. “What if the first scene is just us talking about what to write?” Mr. Bell asks, with a light-bulb-above-the-head glow in his voice. Thus was born “[title of show],” a musical about two ambitious young gay men with bad taste in television and brains leaking Broadway trivia who set out to write a musical.
Does that sound silly and inconsequential? Well, “[title of show]” is definitely both, but at least it has the smarts to acknowledge it. And as performed by Mr. Bowen, Mr. Bell, and Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, the talented girlfriends they rope into their makeshift, make-it-up-as-we-go-along opus, it is genial, unpretentious and far funnier than many of the more expensively manufactured musicals that make it to Broadway these days.
Consider “[title of show]” the class clown of Broadway. Certainly it will never be part of the popular crowd, like those snooty smash hits “Wicked” or “The Lion King.” It’s not the straight-A, critic’s-pet type like “Spring Awakening,” either. But like all class clowns, it wins you over by making fun of the big shots and bursting with its own distinctive personality.
Were you baffled by that reference to “Henry, Sweet Henry”? If you were not, I suspect you have already seen “[title of show]” in its previous incarnations, at the New York Musical Theater Festival or at the Vineyard Theater, where it played a long Off Broadway run in 2006. With allusions to obscure musicals seasoning the dialogue and perky songs — shout-outs to “Kwamina” and “Got tu Go Disco” and “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public” — this production is catnip for show queens.
But while a thorough knowledge of Broadway flops will allow you to get more of the jokes, it is not strictly necessary for enjoyment. Nor is immersion in gay culture a requirement, though it couldn’t hurt. One of the better gags is a running joke about drag names, after all. (My favorite: “Lady Footlocker.”)
In any case, the wit and energy of its execution and the warmth of its performers keep the show from being a mere compendium of in-jokes and metatheatrical gags. Mr. Bowen’s lyrics are often clever, his tunes ear-friendly but melodically substantial enough not to sound too wan in a keyboard-only arrangement. (The musical director Larry Pressgrove, tucked in the back corner of the stage at the keyboard, is the only musician.) Mr. Bell has a savvy ear for the quirky appeal of droney everyday chatter, with its weird digressions and inanities. (The creators have surely logged some couch time with the aimlessly self-absorbed bunch from “Seinfeld.”)
As a performer, Mr. Bell has a cuddly, golly-gee manner that is endearing. In contrast Mr. Bowen takes a more businesslike approach, which includes an obsessive need to correct his friend’s every grammatical lapse. Ms. Blackwell’s idiosyncratic humor is a distinct asset. Learning that the authors have earned a lot of attention from an Internet video promoting the show, she cracks, “I’m gonna go on YouTube and announce that I want a golden pony.”
The cheery Ms. Blickenstaff is the strongest singer in the cast, and the only one to have appeared on Broadway previously, mostly as an understudy. If “[title of show]” has a purpose larger than mere diversion, it is to expose the obstacles — internal and external — that artists on the fringes of the business claw past every day to keep their aim true and their egos from imploding. Ms. Blackwell keeps having to remind her friends that she can’t be hanging out brainstorming or rehearsing all day because she actually has to earn a living as an office manager. Later she leads a funny, pointed song, “Die Vampire, Die!,” about the specter of self-doubt that visits all struggling artists in the wee hours — and the not so wee ones, too.
The director, Michael Berresse (also an actor, who most recently appeared in “A Chorus Line”), weaves the jokes and the songs tightly, although the show still flags a little in the last third as the novelty of its conceit wears thin. (The campaign to win the musical a berth on Broadway meanders, and it does not engender much suspense, for obvious reasons.) Mr. Berresse’s zippy choreography, stocked with cheesy Broadway clichés, is laced with the same self-aware humor that marks the writing.
For all its throwaway charm, “[title of show]” can lay claim to a certain worthy pedigree. It’s an acutely (and cutely) self-conscious 21st-century update of putting-on-a-show shows like Rodgers and Hart’s “Babes in Arms” or Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate.” But no, you don’t have to be an expert in the lineage of this genre to enjoy it. It would definitely help, however, to share a belief that a life in the theater is a worthy calling, and that a fresh new musical — however insignificant — is something worth cheering.
A cute little workshop musical that was inoffensive in its downtown setting catering to its downtown claque, "[title of show]" stands pathetically naked on Broadway. Show's whimsical conceit -- to construct an original musical from moment-by-moment minutiae in the lives of its collaborators -- survives the transfer intact, as do the original creatives. But stripped of satirical edge for its heavy Broadway date, the backstage show by Hunter Bell (book) and Jeff Bowen (score) is revealed in all its narcissism, flaunting its shallow aesthetic values and taking unseemly pride in its inflated ambitions.
It's entirely possible, of course, that the self-satire was never there to begin with, and that Messrs. Bowen and Bell were always as enamored of themselves and their modest idea as they are here. But on a fresh viewing, the substance of the musical emerges with far greater clarity -- and loses whatever charm sustained it downtown.
"An Original Musical" pretty much sums up the show's bald premise -- that a couple of slackers with no ideas, but with an urgent desire to get a musical on Broadway, can turn that trick by writing about nothing. The creepy thing is that, while the characters of Jeff (Bowen) and Hunter (Bell) cynically mock what it takes to make a Broadway hit musical -- "TV stars, movie stars, pop stars ... sexy male dancers ... a big lush orchestra ... a friggin' electric blimp" -- they seem to believe their own shabby values are an improvement.
So, while they have nothing to offer in the way of aesthetic principles themselves, "Part of It All" finds them fantasizing about the fruits of fame: "a trendy photo shoot for a homo magazine ... a house upstate ... fans to captivate ... lunch with Bernadette" and all the rest of it.
Despite the inside jokes (which won't resonate with anyone who doesn't know or care about Roma Torre), there is a remarkable lack of self-awareness in all this. Nor do the buds get any wakeup calls from earnest Heidi (Heidi Blickenstaff) or depressive Susan (Susan Blackwell), two personable performers who handle themselves with assurance in the song department but are swept up in the self-deception that personality is talent and self-expression is theater.
In "I Am Playing Me," Heidi is thrilled, just thrilled, to find herself taking centerstage -- even if she has nothing to say for herself. In "Die, Vampire, Die," Susan exults in her ability to stifle any doubts about their project. And in "Change It, Don't Change It," all four collaborators congratulate themselves for preserving the integrity of a show that, lest we forget, is about nothing.
While the direction and minimal choreography is more fluid in this incarnation, helmer Michael Berresse has also relaxed his hold on whatever self-parody existed in the original production at the Vineyard. For all the lip talk about being true to one's values ("I want there to be substance, not just fluff," Hunter insists), the mocking self-awareness that gave "[title of show]" much of its offbeat appeal ("not that there's anything wrong with fluff") has evaporated in the move uptown. If there's one thing that isn't funny, it's funny people taking themselves too seriously to see how funny they are when they try to be serious.