Broadway Interview with Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen
[title of show], one of the standout hits of the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, recently opened for a run at The Vineyard Theatre in Union Square. The show is about the efforts of Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen (not so coincidentally, the name of this show's creators and stars), to write a show for the Festival by the deadline. To break through their creative block, they decide to write their show about the process of creating a show, and about everything that goes along with it - the doubts, the insecurities, the passion and the fun. Their friends, actors Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell, and music director/pianist Larry Pressgrove join them for the ride. The result, as the recent The New York Times review puts it, is a "zesty, sweet, Broadway-trivia-riddled musical about the anxiety and excitement of creating a zesty, sweet, Broadway-trivia-riddled musical about the anxiety and excitement of creating a. ..." You get the point.
Bell and Bowen have been friends and collaborators since 1995, when they appeared in a production of Good Times in Virginia Beach. Their collaboration was born somewhat from necessity, they joke (Bowen is a musician and composer, and Bell writes the books), but it is also based in their friendship, their admiration for each other's gifts, and their shared love of musical theater. I spoke to them both a few days after the show opened, and we had a great conversation about [title of show], creativity and its concomitant struggles, musical theater and its fans - and even Talkin' Broadway.
Beth Herstein: What can you tell me about the genesis of [title of show] that I don't know from seeing it?
Hunter Bell: Really, what we talk about in the show is pretty accurate. A friend of mine sent me an email about the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, and it was three weeks before the entries were due. Jeff and I had collaborated before and then had taken some time off. You know, life and work gets in the way of being creative sometimes. We said, "Let's try to pull something together and do it." If nothing else this would get us back to creating again and writing. So we made a commitment that whatever we came up with at the end of three weeks, we would put a stamp on it and put it in the mail. Even if we never heard about it again, at least it would get us off the couch, get our pens moving, get Jeff to the keyboard.
Jeff Bowen: There's plenty of material that wasn't put in the show, but that is the nature of a musical. We didn't want to take up five hours of your life, so we boiled it down to 90 minutes.
HB: A tight 90.
BH: That's one of the things that is evident watching it. You act as if the product is much more arbitrary and much less crafted than it actually is.
HB: It's seemingly in the moment, in progress, as if you're watching the creation. But, everything is in the script and is really crafted, either for story purposes or for the timing of a joke or intro to a song. Also, Jeff and I set out to write a show we'd want to see. So, although the goal is to shed light on the creative process, it's also to entertain. It's not a therapy session for us. At heart, it is a musical theater piece - we want you to have a good time and sing the songs and all that. Hopefully the audiences will find that too.
JB: As unconventional as we strive to be, it's still a musical. It still has to have that conventional layout. Otherwise, it wouldn't be considered a musical. It would be a Unique Theatrical Experience.
BH: You all have to maintain a fine balance with what you're doing, so the show doesn't become completely indulgent, and so it retains its shape and structure. How did you manage that?
JB: We managed that by bringing in a director [Michael Berresse]. If we had tried to do it all ourselves, it probably would be the most self indulgent revue you'd ever seen.
HB: And eight hours long.
JB: But we have someone who's navigating to make sure it doesn't become that, and that it stays at a level of accessibility for the audience, so that they can get in.
HB: Also, there's our b-s meter. We try and let it be specific and about our experience, but hopefully the specificity of our experience is universal to an audience. An audience member might not get all the references in the show, but may know that it's hard to create. The goal is to make it as universal as possible.
BH: How do you envision your target audience?
HB: We just sat down and started to write a story, without a target audience in mind. We hope that as many people as possible come in and enjoy it, of course. But, if we had sat down and prepared a flow chart and set out to write the most universal demographically appealing piece, I don't think we'd be sitting down and having this conversation with you now because it would have gone nowhere.
HB: Exactly. So, while we don't want to alienate anybody, we wrote the story that we knew how to write. It would be tricky if we started to cut out, say, the Mary Stout stuff, because somebody might not know who that is. If you keep shaving away the carrot, so at the end of the day, everybody understands it or gets it, but I don't know what you'd have left.
We do think about our audience, but I don't think I would have done anything differently. It's just not something that Jeff and I were interested in, writing the thing with the broadest possible appeal. I think it's great to do that, and in another project we may. But, in this specific project, it's about us creating in the moment. And, I'm really proud about how it turned out in this piece.
JB: Interestingly enough, we still don't have a target audience. And, over the years that we've been doing this, we've been finding that people stumble in who are the husbands and wives of actors, or people who happen to be accountants or mathematicians or whatever, who don't get the musical theater references. But they go for the ride because they are taking a journey about four people who are learning to collaborate and make something that they believe in. That's kind of universal. You don't have to be a musical theater show queen to understand what it is to go after a dream and follow through on your instincts.
The die hard musical theater fans who love the art form don't understand how in the world anyone outside of them could like the show. I liken it to when I read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay [the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Michael Chabon] about comic book writers. I'm a huge comic book nut, and I've been a comic book reader for years. So when I read the book, I knew 99% of the references to comic book artists and to the writers. What was so strange to me was that the book had been recommended to me by friends who don't read comics at all. I asked them, "How did you even like this book? You don't know any of the people they're talking about?" Then, I realized it was because it's not about comic books. It's about friendship and life.
HB: It's an interesting idea. At what point does it exclude, and at what point are you creating specific parameters? Of course, we want as many people as possible to come down and see it, enjoy it, and take the ride. But, there's no way to control it, to write to please people. I wouldn't know how.
JB: That's one of the messages of the show, in the song, "Die Vampire Die." Just get off the couch and go do something. Don't try to please everyone or fit a mold. Sure, you're going to have to craft it and make it what you want it to be; and, that may involve people that you love and that you trust and their opinions. But, when you finally put your painting on the wall, make sure that it's what you want to show people and not what your mother wanted you to paint.
HB: Another problem is, if we'd tried to write something that pleased everyone, we might have stopped. I'm glad we didn't because the results have been really fun.
BH: How has it been having this project snowball and wind up at the Vineyard?
JB: Basically we're just thrilled. Getting into the festival was a goal, and everything beyond that has been really great. And, we enjoy working on this. It is a total labor of love. We love doing it, we love getting together to work on it.
HB: We've also been able to get other people on board, like [scenic designer] Neil Patel, [lighting designers] Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz, [costume designer] Chase Tyler, and Nevin Steinberg [of ACME Sound Partners, LLC]. These are people who help you take an idea even further than you thought it had the potential for. We never imagined what a physical setting might look like. Or, we get the expertise of Nevin, who says, "Why don't we play like this with the sound, work it with the timing of that joke." That's what is so awesome about a musical. You have 50 katrillion people in the room and they love it and they have great ideas. It's amazing to have people come on board who can help you realize your idea, in ways that pimp it up even more than you ever could have dreamed.
JB: And, as they are artists as well, it's great having their respect and their take on the material. It's really a collaborative effort; it's not just a free for all. Everyone has to understand the singular message that's being put across and to follow through with their individual artistic contributions.
And if you rewind all the way to the beginning, that's why we did this in the first place. We love musical theater because it's got to be the most collaborative art form in the world. It's just this big mish mash of people who have incredible talents and make incredible contributions. In addition to it being rewarding, it can be so challenging because of that. But there's nothing wrong with challenging.
HB: Kind of a goal too, was - it's fun to talk to you, it's fun to talk to The Times. It's fun to have conversations about why we do what we do, why we create.
Jeff and I talk about it all the time. We grew up watching the Tony Awards, we would see shows on tours, we would go to New York and see shows. We would be in plays in high school. There's the feeling you get when you're a little kid and you turn on the Tony Awards and you see that world there. You see it on this small box and you think, "Oh, my God it's so exciting." And, on Saturdays back in high school, when you went to build the set for your high school play. The reason that brought you to New York City or whatever city you live in. Whatever makes you go to whatever community theater you work at, or to usher or work at the box office there. The same kind of joy, the passion it brings. That's kind of what our idea was. Is there a way that can happen in the big bad city a little bit? I think it can, and our show demonstrates that. It tries to celebrate what the seed of that is.
BH: You brought in your original fellow actors and other collaborators. They all share in that enthusiasm.
HB: Heidi Blickenstaff, Susan Blackwell. Jeff's known Heidi for a long time. Jeff and I have known Susan for a long time. I've known Larry Pressgrove for years. We've known Michael for years. So, it always felt like a high school rehearsal. We'd come to my apartment, we'd get around a piano, we'd rehearse in those early incarnations. We were all friends, and we probably would have been around the piano singing something from Side Show anyway. It was kind of a celebration of that.
BH: Since you all know each other so well, you're able to write to each other's particular strengths and characters.
HB: Definitely. Also, it's heightened. There are things I say that I might never say, that Jeff says that Jeff might never say, because we're trying to create a theatrical piece. But, it's nice to know the inspiration for the work.
JB: We keep it as rooted in honesty as we can.
BH: Having created the piece for yourselves and using your own names in the show, it seems that it might be a harder balancing act than usual, separating yourselves from your characters. Also, if I write a story and a character in it has the same name as one of my friends - or is a parent - my friends or parents are going to say, "Do you think that's what I'm like?"
HB: I know exactly what you mean. You know, too, it's a mish mash. It may be that a name caught you, or it may be the seed of the idea. What is interesting about it too is that, if I were playing Hamlet, I would bring a lot of myself to that - but it's not me. It's similar to that here, but a little more extreme. I do bring a lot of myself to it, but there are parts of me that are not represented on the stage. It's not all me. It's kind of a heightened, music theater lovin' me. But, we're all complex people. In your example, you might answer your mom, "Well, yes and no." That's kind of the answer here. There are moments that are inspired by us, that are rooted in us.
JB: We always laugh, because sometimes people approach us after the show and think that Susan Blackwell is the weirdest person on the planet. And, she's a totally normal person, just playing an exaggerated bizarre character that is based on a real part of her. But, that is not really who she is, it is just for the purpose of the dramatization. There is a fine line. We're playing characters who just happen to have the same names as us and who are based on us. It's not stand-up comedy.
HB: Or a documentary, either. It's based on real events, compressed events. But, it's a weird thing to describe - a meta, weird, thing, but ultimately rewarding.
JB: We refer to it as autobiofictionography.
BH: What are your future plans regarding this project and others? Do you have plans to collaborate again, or any independent plans?
HB: We're taking things with [title of show] pretty much day by day and enjoying it. We'd love to see great things happen. Great things have already happened. Some of it we can't control, some of it we can. We hope a lot of people come out to see the show and have a good time, and then we'll kind of see. But, we want to enjoy the ride and live in the moment a little bit, because - we don't know. Then there are a lot of factors that are beyond their control. But I hope that it goes as long as it can go and that people who want to take the ride come on and see it.
And, for the future, we have a few things cooking, things that we want to work on together.
JB: Yes. Though just being in the show takes up some time. We can't just go home and write. We have our day jobs and then we do the show at night. The day is gone.
BH: Is there anything else you want to add before you go?
HB: A shout out to all the people at Talkin' Broadway. It's such a great site. We love that there's such a site, and people who are so passionate about theater. We feel like we are the same people. It's in tandem with what we do. All the varying opinions - whether you hate it or you like it.
JB: Just the ability to express your opinion is so rewarding. It's nice to have a forum where people can do that. We think back to when we were in high school in the '80s. You had around three people you got to talk to about theater. You, the girl who sat next to you at drama, and your teacher. Now, there's a whole world of people you can connect to.
HB: A network. I think my head would have exploded - I can't imagine being in junior high or high school, and getting to go home and hop online and talk to people and get their emails and find out who's gonna be in shows, what kind of music or costumes, stuff like that.
Ultimately, people who love this art form like Jeff and I do, now have a forum to celebrate this and share their thoughts. A community to be part of.