Jeff & Hunter on the making of [title of show]
SpeakEasy Stage Boston

 

On a blustery day in mid-December I met collaborators Jeff Bowen (songwriter) and Hunter Bell (book writer) at a vegan Korean deli in Times Square to talk about how a musical they wrote together--and starred in, playing themselves-- went from a short run at a quirky venue in the Garment District as part of the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival to a Broadway opening in July of 2008.

What turned you guys into such musical theatre lovers?

Hunter: It was in my parent's world. We had lots of albums and my Dad would take business trips to New York and bring Playbills back. I liked listening to those records and for some reason it just clicked.

Jeff: I needed a lot of attention in middle school and high school and that's why I did it. That's the honest answer.

How did you meet and become a writing team?

Hunter: We met in '95?

Jeff: Doing a show--

Hunter: a production of Good News that DeSilva, Henderson & Brown classic--

Jeff: as actors. He was the star and I was in the chorus.

Hunter: In a small theatre in Virginia Beach, VA. We worked as actors there and then remained friends. We just kind of started collaborating--friends suggested projects and we started writing stuff. Jeff had been collaborating with Susan Blackwell [original cast member] doing downtown weirdo stuff and they kind of roped me into that world. And then slowly we started making up stuff on our own.

How did you hear about the Festival?

Hunter: It came on the radar of a co-worker at my day job who forwarded me the email. It was--true story--three weeks before the deadline. I called Jeff and I was like, "We've kind of been sitting on our butts, not doing anything creative for awhile so let's use this deadline to get us going."

When did you settle on the idea that became [title of show]?

Jeff: A couple days into it we latched onto this "meta" aspect of documenting what we were creating. Larry [Pressgrove, music director] was with us at the time so we had his outside eye. He was laughing at what we were doing so we kept encouraging each other. It was cracking us up.

Hunter: It was fueled by a lot of things, but the main thing was that it kept us writing and kept us entertained and kept us interested in exploring it.

When you heard you'd been accepted how long did you have to finish it and get it up?

Jeff: A friend of ours [producer Laura Camien] had already booked us a space at Manhattan Theatre Source, a place downtown--

Hunter: for two nights--

Jeff: to do it anyway--

Hunter: with four folding chairs in front of 50 folding chairs.

Jeff: And I think that was in July, like mid-July so we had a month or a month and a half.

Hunter: We found out right during those couple of nights that we'd been accepted in the festival.

Jeff: We wrote even more between that time and when we went up in September and the show became so much more about getting the show ready, getting it on its feet for the festival--

Hunter: not hypothetical on the page--

Jeff: the actual feelings about that coming up.

Was there an immediate buzz about you guys at the Festival?

Hunter: At the first couple of shows there were like ten people, fifteen people watching--

Jeff: mostly just Festival interns--

Hunter: a lot of Festival interns supporting us. And then--

Jeff: As the show rolled on Laura Camien was the producer for the Festival as well. We all kind of realized, with our management, that here's a real opportunity. So between the summer production and the Festival, we brought on a real live director/choreographer because we had directed it ourselves--

Hunter: I don't recommend that.

Jeff: Right! So Micheal Berresse came on at that time. With him involved and with Laura, we all aggressively started pursuing investors and producers thinking, "Why don't we just go ahead and do this?"

Hunter: And "self-produce."

Jeff: So we called as many people as we could to get people there and as the show ran at the Festival, nearing the end of it, we got more and more people.

Hunter: Lesson learned here is--

Jeff: nobody will do that for you.

Hunter: It's a lot of friggin' work, but you have creative control. That part interested us as much as the other. It all became part of the process. The creative fueled the business; the business fueled the creative. Jeff had done years at a web design company and built a site that we started using as a medium to self promote. We were kind of at the beginning of all this social networking and began to utilize that to our advantage. And we took the business part of it just as seriously as the creative part.

You actually made the business side of it very creative.

Jeff: To relieve the tedium. If we'd actually tried to do it in a business way, we would have killed ourselves.

Hunter: There was an apocryphal night for us when the Festival had double booked the space--us and another show. We were pretty low on the totem pole. They were sweet to us, too, but we were weirdoes so they we're kind of like, "What is this?" So they said, "Sorry, we'll give you another night." So they gave us another night and that was the night a lot of industry people happened to came and it was kind of a hot thing. That was the night Kevin McCollum [producer of Rent and Avenue Q] came to see the show and we met him. He came up to us after bows--

Jeff: That was the last show we did.

Hunter: The amazing thing about Kevin is that it was a bizarre little piece in a weirdo downtown space and ,to his credit, I think he recognized something in us and in the production and said, "I think this is weird and interesting. Do you guys want to keep working on this?

And that resulted in an off-off-Broadway run during the Festival the following year?

Jeff: In that time period between the Festival and Ars Nova, which was a year later, we learned a lot. We were growing up. We were being challenged-- by Michael, especially, and the producers, as well--to make the show-- even though it was this gimmicky silly little thing that we had fun with, we were touching on issues and things about creation that were pretty real and pretty resonate and we were capable of exploring it in a way that could be sincere. So were being encouraged to take it a little bit more seriously, that there might be a bigger statement. And in that year we explored that. By the time we arrived at the O'Neill we had gone through a lot of growing pains together and we started to explore what that meant. So the time at the O'Neill was this amazing time because we really took ownership of what was happening creatively and as a collaborative team.

Were you also addressing an expanding demographic moving uptown?

Hunter: We addressed that, too, most specifically as we moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway. The back half of the show changed because it became about, "Will this work on Broadway?" and "What is a Broadway show?" It's interesting that those questions were there even at the Festival and at the Vineyard Theatre, Off-Broadway, but it has a different resonance in a Broadway house to be asking those questions.

Did you change it again before it was made available to regional theatres?

Hunter: We did some tweaks, but not a lot. We did a kind of workshop production at Baldwin Wallace College in Ohio with students which was a great place for us to see it on other bodies. I think the expectation was, "How would that ever work?" but--

Jeff: We also learned when we were running on Broadway that only a really small percentage of the [audience] actually knew who we were or that we were playing ourselves.

Hunter: They were just watching a play.

Jeff: People would come back afterwards, like from Texas, and say to us [in a perfect Texas accent] "Oh, my God, I opened my program and then I realized that you guys are the people the show's about." So we learned from that "Oh, we don't really have to be performing this."

Hunter: There was definitely emotion and cachet and payoff with us playing ourselves--

Jeff: Only if you knew that level was happening. If you were aware of that, than that would be fun for you--

Hunter: If not, you were watching a play about people trying to create a play.

During those first three weeks of writing, was your goal just to be accepted by the Festival?

Jeff: It really was just to have something completed--and about making a demo of four songs. That was also part of it.

Hunter: About like two and a half weeks into it. I'd be lying if I said we weren't emotionally attached to the outcome. You put all this work into it and you say, "Ya, I want to cross the finish line. I'd love to be able to do that." I wanted that, too, but we would sit in that room and write freely. I don't know why--I can't explain this--inner gut: "this would be an amazing Broadway show." I always kind of had that churning. I don't know if it was naivety, or ego, or what. I was interested in the ideas we were exploring, and I hoped at some point they would get out into the world somehow. But it was not linear. It wasn't like we were going to submit it to Broadway people. It was this weirdo Festival thing so we could say whatever we wanted. There was freedom in that.

What surprised you the most as the show progressed?

Hunter: It was amazing how the show spoke to people anyone who wasn't doing what they really wanted to be doing with their lives. I think that was the most surprising thing. I didn't know that by sharing our very specific story about two guys wanting to write a musical, our story about doing what you love, somehow it would inspire people.