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Review: [title of show] at Theatre 3
by Jerome Weeks 29 Apr 2010

Judy, let’s put on a show! In fact, let’s put on a show about the very show that, um, we’re trying to write … right now. [title of show] turns the ‘backstage musical’ into the ‘meta-musical.’ It’s coy and cute, proudly insular and inconsequential. Putting “quotation marks” around a musical doesn’t make it smarter or deeper — just post-modern.


title of show2 cut

Chad Peterson, Marianne Galloway, Tricia Ponsford and Alexander Ross in [title of show]

Theatre 3’s current production is a musical about creating this very musical. Such an idea usually appeals to KERA’s Jerome Weeks. But not this time.

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I’m a sucker for what’s called ‘meta.’

Theatre 3 is presenting the Texas premiere of [title of show], and it’s very meta. Meta means ‘about itself’ – like meta-fiction is fiction about the writing of fiction. In 2004, two real-life young nobodies named Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell wrote a musical and entered it in the New York Music Theater Festival. Their show was about two young fictional nobodies writing a musical and entering it in the New York Music Theater Festival (along the way, they dragooned two female friends into playing two female friends dragooned into playing themselves). [title of show] went on to a real-life run on Broadway and a (small) passel of nominations and awards — pretty much the narrative path the musical jokingly follows.

Comedian Gary Shandling did meta on his old sitcom, It’s Gary Shandling’s Show. Self-obsessed and neurotic, his character, naturally called Gary Shandling, would eagerly indicate to the audience the obvious TV artifice going on — how his neighbors were actually just visiting guest stars. Or how the next scene was going to take place on that set over there, across the studio, so he’d hop in a golf cart and drive over. All very post-modern and fourth-wall-breaking. It’s Gary Shandling’s Show even had a theme song about being a theme song.

Which is very much like [title of show]’s opening number. This is from the cast recording:

Untitled Opening Number: “It’s the opening song. It doesn’t have a title, no. And it’s not very long. But it’s the starting point of our musical.”

I loved Shandling’s show. I don’t love [title of show], although I wanted to — it even has its own musical director, Terry Dobson, sitting on the set with his keyboard,mostly bored, reading the newspaper between numbers. A nice touch. So I can’t fault the nearly-two-hour musical for being cutely self-referential – because that’s meta. But this is not a show for Broadway lovers or the occasional fan; it’s a show for Broadway obsessives, people who happily swap trivia about forgotten flops like Bring Back Birdie or The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. One (typically clever and show-offy) number, “Monkeys and Playbills,” even features song lyrics drawn from the titles of shows, which the cast helpfully displays on giant Playbill covers in case anyone’s forgotten The Golden Apple or Oh Kay! or Working.

title of show3So [title of show] recognizes its  limitations. Composer-lyricist Hunter, the more flamboyantly gay one of the creative pair (Chad Peterson), even worries several times that what he’s writing will be just a tiny, insider-y, self-indulgent musical. He wants to write something more significant than that.

But then he and Jeff, (Alex Ross) sing how they’d happily opt for what’s essentially cult status — they want their musical to be “nine people’s favorite show” rather than a hundred people’s ninth favorite show. This sounds like a brave artistic credo — except that it confuses depth with narrowness of commercial appeal.

For instance, [title of show] sprays the occasional obscenity. And Jeff and Hunter and their collaborators, Susan (Marrianne Galloway) and Heidi (Tricia Ponsford) defend retaining the words as the musical goes through hoops and revisions from off-Broadway to on. The writers are determined they’re not going to lose their downtown edge, and the matinee ladies on Broadway have kids who probably use these words all the time, anyway.

But shouting a dozen adult words hardly makes [title of show] ‘adult material’ in the sense of more thoughtful, more profound. It just excludes the ‘family’ audience.  About the most profound ideas the show musters are a device to overcome self doubts (try shouting “Die, Vampire, Die!”) and a depiction of the push and pull that tear at any collaborative team facing success (“Change It, Don’t Change It”). When it comes to human realities, [title of show] makes Glee seem like Eugene O’Neill.

So [title of show] is proudly insular. And, despite its self-awareness and its mild stabs at meaning, it is cheerfully inconsequential. It’s also proudly gay, which complicates things. There’s a sense that downtown = edgy = cult status = post-modern meta = camp = gay.  One gets the impression that exiting the closet means getting trapped in a hall of mirrors and down the rabbit hole. At one point, Hunter realizes that if they’re using their real lives for material for the show, they could just put the conversation they’re having right now — in the show!

“Wait” Jeff replies, ” so everything I say from now on could actually be in our show?”

And so on. It’s Luigi Pirandello’s Six Campy Characters in Search of An 11 O’Clock Number.

The Theatre 3 production doesn’t really attempt to address these pretzel-logic concerns; it mostly just wants to have fun — until the show dips into its moment of possible-sellout-success angst. Bruce Coleman, the set designer, has colluded with Bruce Coleman, the costume designer, and Bruce Coleman, the director, to signal this fun status through the set’s loud, clashing colors. Ditto for the costumes. Although we’re supposedly in Jeff and Hunter’s funky, Hell’s Kitchen living rooms, all the red, blue, green and yellow signal “Kids Toy Room.”

But one weakness of fun is a similar weakness of meta: It wears out pretty fast unless it’s connected to something more durable than quips about Broadway fetishism. And [title of show] reminded me why it was a good idea Gary Shandling’s sitcom was only 30 minutes long.