In 2004, two “nobodies” in New York wrote a small musical to submit to the newly minted New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Four years later, July 17, 2008, the show opened on Broadway, earning a Tony nod for Best Book of a Musical and going on to become a cult hit.
Come March 11, The Actors Fund will present the official reunion concert of Broadway’s [title of show] for one night only. Composer-lyricist-star Jeff Bowen, book writer-star Hunter Bell, their co-stars Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, original music director Larry Pressgrove, and original director-choreographer Michael Berresse (currently starring in The Cher Show as Bob Mackie) have been back in the rehearsal room trying to find a way back to then.
Playbill wanted to be part of it all, so we reunited the quintet of onstage faces to give us the inside scoop on the earliest day of [title of show], who else might have played their roles, and what they’re realizing they forgot—but will remember—for their Actors Fund reunion. Watch the interviews in their full hilarity in the videos above and below, and read an excerpt of the chat here:
How did [title of show] start?
Jeff Bowen: Hunter was working in a place where a friend of his sent him an email that said there's this new musical theatre festival coming up and you should submit something. The deadline was only three weeks away so Hunter and I scurried and we wrote a big musical in three weeks, sent it off, and then we went to Broadway!
Hunter Bell: It was that easy.
Was it always a meta-musical?
Susan Blackwell: Which sounds a lot like Metamucil.
Heidi Blickenstaff: Which is also helpful.
Bell: We truly just had the task of writing anything in three weeks and putting it in the mail, that's what we charged ourselves with. It was just an exercise in creativity and getting off our butts to write is the first thing, and the thing that made us the happiest and delighted us most was writing about writing.
Hunter and Jeff, were you always going to play those roles or would you have considered other actors?
Bell: Paul Rudd, for me, obviously.
Blackwell: And for me. Sorry.
Blickenstaff: For all of us, really. It's a one man show.
HB: We knew we were available and we could afford ourselves.
Bowen: I will say when we were writing it, we weren't necessarily thinking about performing it. We were just writing a piece about two guys writing a musical. But then we had an opportunity to do a production of it in front of people we were like "I guess we'll just play ourselves."
Blickenstaff: But you guys had been actors, you were actors first.
Bell: Yeah, we had been in the game.
Blackwell: I think you should rethink Paul Rudd though.
Blickenstaff: [title of show]: the movie?
When did each of you—Susan, Heidi, Larry—become involved in the show?
Blackwell: Girl, it's been ten years. I don't remember. It's been 14 years!
Bell: We hollered at you and said, "Do you wanna come do this?"
Blackwell: Early on, you did. You said, "Do you wanna do this?" And I said, and I think I still have the email, "I don't know. I'm busy." And then you came back and you said, "We wrote you in."
Larry Presgrove: Well, Hunter and I were roommates. I was the most—the closest music director.
Blickenstaff: I was the last to the party. Jeff and I had done The Who's Tommy in Brazil, which is referenced in title of show, that's a true story. And Jeff sent me a script and I remember thinking, "Is this a joke?"
Bell: Every writer’s dream.
Clearly, you are all jokesters. Tell us about one of the funniest times from rehearsal.
Bell: What pops into my mind immediately is we were choreographing a number—well, Michael was choreographing a number - and I couldn't get the choreography, and Benjamin Howes, our understudy, said the quote, “Well never make it to nationals with Shannon on the end.”
Blickenstaff: That was me! I said it!
Bell: Alright, I'll start again.
Blackwell: You all learned this very complex rifle-ography. I had to be at work at my office job.
Bowen: But there wasn't an actual rifle, it was just pantomimed, so it was still choreography.
Blackwell: By the time I made it back from my office, dressed in full office togs, you had completely learned it, and it had been cut. And I was so happy.
What’s been the most surprising thing returning to the material?
Blackwell: We did it a bunch, and then we haven't done it for ten million years
Bell: I actually run it every day at my house. I just want to say that to you guys. I learned how high those keys were.
Bowen: It was also funny to go into the first music rehearsal and not remember things that I wrote, and I was like, “We performed this?” There were sections of the Broadway run that we only did on Broadway, and there were some vocal arrangements and stuff that just fell out of our heads.
Presgrove: And we convinced Jeff, that yes, that's actually the way it goes. That's actually the way you wrote it.
Blickenstaff: Having read the show a week ago, and not having touched it for a really long time, I'm so proud of y'all and what we made and it really does capture this beautiful slice of our lives
Bell: We got to make something we love with people we love, and we got to do it on the Broadway.
Blickenstaff: Who gets to do that? Can you think of any other group that were tight friends and made a musical and it went to Broadway? Pump Boys and Dinettes, they were all pals.
Bell: And Kwamina. The cast of Kwamina.