[title of show] is written by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, about two friends called Jeff and Hunter, playing characters called Jeff and Hunter in a musical they’re writing about the process of writing a musical. Got that? A kind of off-Broadway meta love letter to Broadway, Bowen and Bell wrote the show in three weeks to enter the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, and found the necessary last-minute inspiration by quite literally taking their real-life conversations about the process of hitting the deadline – right up to the deadline.
It’s a fun, energetic, modern show that lives and breathes its musical theatre, and so it’s unsurprising it appealed to Liverpool’s What We Did Next. The company may usually go for bigger pieces that can make the most of a large ensemble cast (their main show earlier in the year was Carousel at the Unity), but [title of show] proved they can ace small and intimate studio performances too.
All that was needed was a cast of four – five, including regular musical director Jonas Tattersall on keyboards – and little more than a chair each and a pile of replica Broadway playbills to tell the tale. One of WWDN’s founders, Jamie Barfield, and the company’s previous Bat Boy Jak Malone played Jeff and Hunter respectively; the former the easygoing and sensible one, the latter more impulsive and outre. As the pair begin to develop their show, they recruit gal pals Heidi (Franki Burke), a fledgeling Broadway hoofer, and Susan (Ellie Gray), a kooky aspiring actress trapped in a demanding job leaving little time to feed her creativity.
The script, which comes together as a lively stream of sketches and songs, bursts with quick New York sitcom wit and self-referencial humour. It cleverly toys with expectations, and makes dozens of Broadway references so obscure the programme features a glossary of shows and performers namechecked (1950s Yiddish-themed variety show Bagels and Yox, anyone?). It’s camp, knowing, a bit saucy, and full of inside jokes – yet always remains good-natured, charming, and keeps the audience on side.
Being unfamiliar with the show before this production, this reviewer could summise this might be down to good writing; but in fact it probably owed more to the really quite remarkable chemistry of the (non-professional) cast. They have all worked together on previous WWDN productions and, especially in the cases of Burke and Malone – a scene-stealer as always – have impressed on several occasions before. Ellie Gray appeared in her first major role and shone with a Tina Fey style comic confidence, while Barfield’s Jeff held the cast together with a reassuring competence. US accents were spot on and the both the comic timing and musical arrangements were a dream.
The second act – added on to continue the story of [title of show] after it went on to its own real-life off-Broadway stint – wasn’t quite as tightly-written as the first, but continued a theme that would speak not only to musical theatre types but to anyone with a creative side. The process of writing and creating, and the resulting compromises, self-indulgence, self-doubt and strained friendships that go with the territory are all themes tackled in the piece – to stand out effect in It’s an Original Musical (in which Jeff gets a reality check from a singing, dancing notepad, pictured above) Susan’s Die Vampire, Die, and the hilarious Awkward Photo Shoot.
But the friends rally on, and achieve their dream. So despite its mischevous attempts to play with musical theatre form and cliche, the joy in [title of show] is that it can’t escape the best of the genre – and doesn’t want to. A perfect show for What We Did Next, practically perfectly done.