By ASHLEY VAN BUREN
When your last show was a musical about two guys writing a musical, where do you go from there?
For several years, that question has confronted the team behind [title of show], the quirky, self-aware tuner that took an unlikely journey from the New York Musical Theatre Festival to a 2008 Broadway run.
Their answer? Push the genre boundaries even further. From now until June 19, the <i>[title of show]</i> team is at the Vineyard Theatre with Now. Here. This., a work-in-progress production that's been dubbed a "theatri-concert."
Blending personal stories, theatrical monologues, and original music, the show explores ideas like how to take risks and celebrate being our true selves. But since the team is rewriting constantly, it's hard to nail down exactly what the show is about. For now, the creative process is more important than the final product.
Here's a look at what that process entails.
"Now. Here. This. is a different style of storytelling that is more direct address, much more collaged. And it’s not a sort of typical, book musical style," says Susan Blackwell, who is writing the piece with castmate Hunter Bell, who also co-starred in and wrote the book for [title of show].
She continues, " [title of show], was dealing with a very specific experience in our lives and a creative experience that we were advancing. This is sort of a no-holds-barred look at the creative process, friendship, relationships and parts of our lives, but it is not pure autobiography. It is auto-bio-fiction-ography."
The initial impetus for Now. Here. This. came from a piece called My First Time , which Blackwell and Bell wrote for a Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS benefit. In that piece, they told the stories of seeing their first Broadway shows.
My First Time was inspired by the works of Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian, whose shows were evenings of direct address monologues based on their life stories. In Now. Here. This., Blackwell and Bell expand that approach by adding original music and expanding the cast to four people.
The cast includes fellow [tos] alums Jeff Bowen, who's also composing the score, and Heidi Blickenstaff. Musical director/arranger Larry Pressgrove and director Michael Berresse are also back on board.
While they're learning what the show will become, the company is also grappling with how to present a work in progress to a paying audience. Bell and Blackwell liken this experience to pulling back the curtain on or in Bell’s words, playing "DVD extras."
That can be intimidating, but Bell says it captures the spirit of the show: "I think the heart and pulse of our piece is about putting things out there and living your life, so the idea of a lab workshop is, interestingly enough, [like] what we’re trying to accomplish with the show."
Though the team has worked together before, a lab production is a lot riskier than a traditional Broadway show. "There’s a 'fight or flight' in those moments in front of an audience that is such a clear litmus test," Blackwell says. "When you have a live theatrical event, the audience feels like another character. You learn at an accelerated rate with them. My hope is that we can learn a lot and advance the piece quickly."
In preparation for the workshop, Blackwell and Bell spent the last several months writing intensely with each other while Bowen worked with Pressgrove and a band to round out the score.
For Bowen, tying the music together with Blackwell and Bell’s direct address was an interesting challenge. "It became an intuitive sense of what is needed in that moment. Sometimes it lives better or it’s more palatable in the realm of music and lyrics than it is in the realm of spoken word and vise versa," he says. Blackwell adds, "Jeff would take a tiny anecdote from your life or an image or memory that you’ve enjoyed, and the next day he’d come back with this little thing. It was a treat to have that."
Though the piece will morph and change nightly, there will be at least one thread that will connect everyone throughout the production, and it stems from the title. Blackwell explains: "There was this monk, Thomas Merton, who said that if you can get to the intersection of Now: this moment in time; Here: exactly where you are; This: exactly what you’re doing---if you can get to the intersection of those three things, then there’s nothing to fear and you can really appreciate your life. Sometimes [this moment] is very clearly drawn in the piece, and sometimes it’s smaller throughout the course of the evening, [but] we’re going there.”
Ashley Van Buren is a writer and film production freelancer based in New York City.