Long before Stew started Passing Strange — long before Man in Chair took pen in hand — there were the grand old men of Do-It-Yourself Stardom, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, a pair of industrious, determined thirtysomethings writing their own tickets to Broadway.
Back then (four years ago) — they dared not use the B-word. They were just a couple of chronically "at liberty" chorus kids who sat down one fine day in Bell's living room and started writing themselves a show. A "civilian" from one of their day jobs suggested they submit an entry to the annual New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), so they used that as a creative impetus and got cracking. On the real and inhibiting chance that they wouldn't make the cut, they got the promise of a lift-off gig downtown at Manhattan Theatre Source so that, as Jean Hagen squeaked in Singin' in the Rain, "our work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
Fast flash-forward — from a launching at Manhattan Theatre Source to a slot on the NYMF slate and development at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and Ars Nova to a life at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre to — dare we now say it? — Broadway: the venerable Lyceum on July 17. In anybody's book, that's Touchdown!
[title of show] got its title of show from an entry blank. "It truly was on the form for the New York [Musical] Theatre Festival — name, address, phone number, title of show," recalls Bell. At that time they were stymied for a title, and such corny, cloying contenders as Two Dreamers and Broadway Dreams were breathing heavily down their necks, so, in a moment of inspired desperation, they went with the pre-existing heading, "with the idea that, hopefully, on some level, [title of show] represents whatever you want it to be, whatever you would title the show. You do it for us. You do the work for us, but we own the copyright. It could be like Insert Your Dream Here."
The plot was also an imitation of life: Two theatrical wannabes cook up a musical comedy for themselves in three weeks' time and enter it for consideration in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. That's it. The division of labor was clear: Bell on book and Bowen on songs (musically directed and keyboarded by Larry Pressgrove).
Every dizzy, microscopic turn in this venture is fiercely chronicled — and Susan Blackwell, who has written with Bowen, and Heidi Blickenstaff, who toured The Who's Tommy with him in Brazil, were added to the act and plot.
Bowen says there's a word for all the above, and it belongs to their writing teacher, Lynda Barry, who wrote The Good Times Are Killing Me: autobiofictionography. "That sums up who we are — a lot. We're not a documentary. We're musical comedy, but we are documenting aspects of our lives and documenting aspects of these two writers, Hunter and Jeff, who are trying to write a Broadway show. Everything that happens to us goes on in our brains and goes in the blender and influences the show.
"We've always said — and it's kind of a song in the show — that we wanted to write specifically about what it is we do. We didn't want to make it the most universal thing in the world. We didn't want everyone to relate to it. But, ironically, that's what kinda happened. The more specific we got, the more universal it became."
Another lucky break was tapping Michael Berresse for director when he heretofore had only played one on Broadway (Zach in A Chorus Line). "He was the first person to approach us and say, 'I think you're saying something bigger here,'" says Bowen. "'I don't know if you guys can see it because you're in it, but something bigger is going on.' He challenged us to say what it is he knew we really wanted to say, and he got it out of us."
Bell and Bowen finally get their first big gulp of Broadway stardom this month, but they cut their teeth as a writing team some time ago by adapting for the musical stage Nine to Five, a property which will surface here later this season musicalized by its original creators, songwriter Dolly Parton and book writer Patricia Resnick. "Think we'll get to meet Dolly?" Bell injects with the born-again innocence of A True Fan. "I hope so. Is there a code? Like, when you're on Broadway, do you get to meet stars? Is there a secret handshake? How's it done?"