Scene: The Vineyard Theatre lobby, two weeks prior to an Off-Broadway commercial run of a musical about making a musical. HUNTER Bell and JEFF Bowen — the up-and-coming musical team behind (and in) the show [title of show]— sit at a small round table with PLAYBILL.COM's Ernio Hernandez, who conducts an interview.
PLAYBILL.COM: So, thanks for the mention of our site in the show...
HUNTER: Word, we do a little shout at Playbill. Are you kidding, I read it every day.
PLAYBILL.COM: ...and the great product placement with the Playbills in the song "Monkeys and Playbills."
JEFF: Oh yeah.
HUNTER: We're nerds...
JEFF: We're total nerds.
PLAYBILL.COM: Do you prefer the term "nerds" or "theatre geeks"?
JEFF: We're "theatre geeks," "theatre fags"...
HUNTER: (Overlapping) we're "theatre fags"...
HUNTER & JEFF: "theatre nerds," we're...
HUNTER: "theatre dorks"...
JEFF: (Overlapping) ..."show queens."
HUNTER: I embrace all of it. I'll take all of it; I don't think any of it's derogatory...
JEFF: I had a...
HUNTER: We're going to own it like...
JEFF: I had a new one the other day and I can't remember what it was, it was really great... (Pause. ALL silent.) I don't know, maybe it'll hit me.
HUNTER: It'll hit you, Jeff? Halfway through.
PLAYBILL.COM: Okay, hopefully.
HUNTER: Yeah, I read Playbill.com...
HUNTER & JEFF: ...everyday.
PLAYBILL.COM: Well, we put stuff up every day, so that's good.
JEFF: You do.
HUNTER: You do. You guys do really well.
JEFF: And you guys do features every day...
HUNTER: That's what I like.
PLAYBILL.COM: Let's make this interview about Playbill.
HUNTER: That's all good.
JEFF: (Suddenly) We'll put this on our site promoting your site.
PLAYBILL.COM: Alright, so you guys are two weeks away from the new show, from the commercial run. Are you guys adding anything new to the show?
HUNTER: We um... (breaking into an old-timey director type, mimicking a cigar at the side of his mouth) "Show's frozen, Bird's Eye." (Laughs.)
JEFF: I think we'll probably...(trailing off as:)
HUNTER: (Overlapping) I think we'll brush up a couple things here and there. Our goal is to, like, we had those celebrity messages with the women and maybe get some new ladies. We thought it might be a fun thing to do for return [title of show]-ers...
JEFF: We've had some of the ladies come, some famous ladies came to see the show and they've like become interested (Pause)—now. Now that we're a show and (chuckles) so... that's kind of fun, because it would be fun to rotate them and just do different ones.
HUNTER: I think that'd be intriguing.
JEFF: And that's fun for some of the... we have a few diehards now.
PLAYBILL.COM: Do they have a name, like Rent-heads?
JEFF: "The tossers," yeah...
HUNTER: We like that...
JEFF: T-o-s... [as in [title of show]].
PLAYBILL.COM: It's very British.
HUNTER: It is; dirty British. So when we play in London, it'll take on a whole new meaning.
JEFF: I know. (eager actor voice) "We're playing in London, what have you heard?"
HUNTER: What else? (finding his way back to the question) Oh, there was a thing about "Project Runway" in there too. But, "Project Runway" starts again on July 12th, so I think we're going to be okay. We just have to change Zulema's name—whom we just met, too—so, sorry Zulema.
JEFF: We have some things in the book that are pretty timely and can easily change out. The music and lyrics are kinda set, plus the CD is coming out, so we can't get too far away from that. But I think we might discover like a few things when we go back into rehearsal (whiny son voice) "Can we change this? Dad, I don't like this scene."
HUNTER: But there is a book and I do like the idea of the flexibility of a pop culture reference or something like that, but the overall arc of the show—and like "Why do you create?" and "Who do you create for?" and "What does that mean?" —that kinda stays the same, I don't think we're going to put..."The Game Show Scene" back in. (Aside) There was a game show scene. But you know, big chunks like that, I don't think will really change.
PLAYBILL.COM: I was going to ask you about some of the cut material that didn't make it, that you maybe miss.
HUNTER: (Quoting the show) "Change it, don't change it." Yeah, I mean there are parts of me that miss all of it because my ego wants to be like "It's all amazing!" and "Who wouldn't want to watch eight hours of [title of show]?" (ALL laugh.)
JEFF: There are definitely some sections that were like huge chunks that have been taken out...and it's so weird because...
HUNTER: There's a quartet you wrote that I loved.
JEFF: There was a huge quartet that all of us sang, kind of a little more dramatic, and it was when the drama of the show was more about sacrificing your friends. Then, as the show grew up, it became more about sacrificing your show. So we kind of lost that whole piece. You get a little tiny bit of it in "Change It, Don't Change It" but it was a huge sequence that was a lot of fun to do and we just lost it. And then there was a big section that we did at the [New York Musical Theatre] festival the first time around called "Retarded Girl" and it was so funny because we had a lot of people who were just like "I can't believe you cut the quartet!" or "I can't believe R.G. – The Musical's out of it!" More of it was just about telling the story.
JEFF: And we wanted to commit to 90 minutes because nobody likes to sit still and (smiling) I like a tight 90 myself. It's kind of fun and then you're home and you can watch "Grey's Anatomy" (laughing) and then you're sad. But we knew we wanted to be that 90-minute structure and we just kind of said "What is the most interesting thing?" and so like a game show section was funny— it was a whole thing called like "So You've Been Optioned!" and answering questions about what that meant—it was funny, but it just was like a different show. So, when you truly just constantly (makes an arc or throughline with his finger on the table)—and this is where Michael Berresse, our director, was just great at constantly staying on us...
JEFF: He sort of dramaturged us really well.
HUNTER: ...as a dramaturg to be like "What is the overall thing?" Like, just cause it's funny, doesn't mean it should be in there.
JEFF: And he also encouraged us to, whenever we would get afraid of going down a path that seemed too... I don't want to say too serious, but too... sincere, we have such huge bullshit meters that would go crazy, but he had a lot of confidence in us as actors, knowing that the four of us would be able to pull it off. We did take a more sincere route sometimes and we were like "Alright, we'll do it" and it helped the show grow. We ended up learning a lot; we took more risks.
HUNTER: It gave it a little more heart.
JEFF: Gave it a little more heart and gave us and really made us fall more and more in love with it because we were risking and investing so much more by putting ourselves out there and it made us (seeing HUNTER mock sleeping)... Shut up!
HUNTER: (Snoring) Wait, what were you saying, I fell asleep.
JEFF: Someone just fell asleep at their mouse. Screensaver's on.
PLAYBILL.COM: So were you guys tweaking the show during the Vineyard run?
JEFF: Early on.
HUNTER: Well, during previews we were and then, once it opened, we froze it. A lot of it became about trusting the material, just not trying to sell it, like "Ha, we're funny!"
JEFF: It was stranger because every time we had ever done any incarnation of [title of show], it was never for more than five or six performances.
HUNTER: Or like a reading.
JEFF: Or the O'Neill [Theatre Center] performance, you only get to do one.
HUNTER: (Laughs) It was like doing a benefit.
JEFF: So we always were doing these "benefit" performances of [title of show]; we had a different script each time. And then all of a sudden we were here with 20 shows and three weeks staring at us and we're like "Wow, we're going to have to do the same show every night."
HUNTER: And with the more time, it totally helped because...
JEFF: Oh, you can actually trust this and just be in it.
HUNTER: ...and just relax instead of like "Clang! On!"
JEFF: But during previews we were still just like (over-emoting actor voice) "This is the funniest show ever, isn't it?"
HUNTER: (Joining in) "Isn't it?"
JEFF: (Fading) "Isn't it? Isn't it? Isn't it?"
HUNTER: "Please validate us!"
JEFF: And then eventually we were like "Just do the show."
HUNTER: It was just relaxing and trusting it. It's the nature of it, some people are going to love what you do and some people are going to hate what you do, but you can't...
JEFF: You can't not...
HUNTER & JEFF: ...do it. (Laugh.)
HUNTER: The option is you just go home.
JEFF: Yeah, the option is not to do it and that's not a good option.
PLAYBILL.COM: Well, talking about not doing it, you guys are having understudy auditions. What's it going to be like not playing you yourself.
HUNTER: Isn't that crazy? That's totally crazy. Well, one thing I'm tickled about is people wearing—I mean, we had a costume designer, but that kind of grew out of our natural wardrobe, so I'm going to freak out the day I see somebody in the thing [I wear]. But I always hear that thing of Rent, like how they wore their own clothes, I don't know if that's true, and now that they have a costume shop, like, build Mark's sweater, build that scarf. I love the idea of the Toronto company, the "Jeff" company building their costumes.
JEFF: (Snickering) Jeff Company, LLC.
HUNTER: That didn't answer the question; the answer is: it's totally exciting and I'm eager to see it. I think it'll work. Some people will be like "I'm curious to see what that is," but I believe it'll probably be better than we are. It'll also be a new fresh take and, interestingly enough, it'll just be them interpreting a role, not bringing a lot of baggage to it.
JEFF: I don't really ever think of it as playing me. I really think I'm playing a character that's very much based on me. I don't act like that all the time. God knows he doesn't act like that all the time or we'd kill him. (Faking concern) Oh, Hunter! I mean, we're all very heightened versions of ourselves, so it's just going to be another actor trying to do that and us being like, "That is not working... what you're doing."
HUNTER: I think it'll be fun and surreal.
JEFF: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I have interest because I don't want to do it for the rest of my life.
HUNTER: Aww, grandpa. You'll be like Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight! (Holbrook/Twain-like voice) Jeff Bowen in the national tour...
JEFF: But I play all the parts.
HUNTER: I like that.
PLAYBILL.COM: Like a one-man [title of show]?
HUNTER: Like Patrick Stewart...(:aughs)
JEFF: But I'm like 75.
PLAYBILL.COM: (Laughs) Patrick Stewart.
JEFF: (Laughs) Patrick Stewart.
PLAYBILL.COM: Tell me how you guys met.
JEFF: We did a show together as actors, 10 years ago, in Virginia, a production of Good News. He played Bobby and I played Colton McCord—that's one of those chorus names that you make up. It's not really in it, but I thought that was a great name, but everyone called me Colt.
HUNTER: (Laughs) When did you make that up?
JEFF: You know how the chorus is like (stereotypical chorus voice) "Let's make up names for ourselves!" "My name's Colt!"
PLAYBILL.COM: And then everyone writes it on their resumes so it looks like a bigger part.
JEFF: I'm sure it's on my resume.
HUNTER: (Laughing) That's amazing... Colt.
JEFF: That's gotta be so funny to the casting directors who are not idiots who will just see some character that's not in the show, like "What? Who is that?"
PLAYBILL.COM: So, have you guys heard from Betty Buckley?
HUNTER: We have not. Our friend knows her and I'm like "Do you think she'd ever come see this?" And the truth is, funny thing, we're totally obsessed with her and that's the crazy thing. So it's a shot out of love.
JEFF: I mean, pretty much everyone else we talk about in the show, we're secretly obsessed with.
HUNTER: Yeah, and that's the weird thing. I guess it's a weird way to show it, too, to say somebody's a "hot box of crazy," but I mean that in a good way. Cut to me in the front row at The Mystery of Edwin Drood on Broadway...
JEFF: Crying... (laughs)
HUNTER: ...like bawling like a dork and totally waiting at the stage door. Is this too much information for our readers?
HUNTER: And it was that original cast, so I completely waited at the stage door and somewhere I've got a Playbill, like she signed it and Patti Cohenour and Cleo Laine and Howard McGillin...
JEFF: Wow, you had them all...
HUNTER: And the chorus—what was that?—like Judy Kuhn, Donna Murphy and...
JEFF: And the director now, Rob Marshall...
HUNTER: Larry Giroux, Rob Marshall. (Pause) God, nerd! I'm not real clear what's going on in the Middle East, but I said the whole chorus of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.