Porchlight’s improvised Best Musical!

Creator Matthew Loren Cohen marries musical improv and traditional structure.

Photograph: courtesy of Porchlight Music TheatreBest Musical! at Porchlight Music Theatre

Most new musicals take years to develop. Porchlight Music Theatre’s new improvised show, Best Musical!, cranks out a new one every week—in about an hour.

Conceived by Second City music vet Matthew Loren Cohen as a variation on a show he cocreated in New York, Best Musical! is split into two acts. The first half is an awards ceremony (complete with an unctuous emcee), in which the cast of musical improvisers performs on-the-spot “excerpts” from five nominated musicals; the actors draw a hypothetical track title from a hat full of audience suggestions and immediately describe the musical it comes from before launching into song.

At the end of the awards show, a winner is chosen by audience applause, and after intermission (and with no planning during the break), the cast comes back to improvise that entire musical—including a reprise of the tune improvised in the first act. At one performance in the show’s initial run, the song title “No One Can Spoil This Investigation” led to the full-length musical JonBenét.

The show requires performers to “improvise, sing, act—in my opinion it’s more like casting a traditional musical,” says Cohen, 36, who serves as musical director and accompanist. He brought the concept to Porchlight, known for specializing in traditional musicals, after moving to Chicago last year. The spring run, performed off-nights on the set of Porchlight’s A Catered Affair, was a hit; this week Best Musical! returns with a holiday edition.

Both the songs and the second-act full musical were surprisingly polished at the performance I saw in March. The format stresses structure more than some other musical improv forms, says cast member Tim Sniffen. “I think a lot of musical improv-type things are very, ‘Hey, we’re making it up, and that means anything goes,’ ” says Sniffen, who’s performed with Baby Wants Candy and Second City TourCo. “Matt’s like, ‘Yes, anything goes, but I want you to have good rhyme structure and songs that hold up.’ ”

“What I love about this show is its structure,” Cohen says. “We generally use two kinds of song structure: verse-chorus and tag-line songs,” in which each verse contains an identical line (think “The Lady Is a Tramp”). “The first act is sort of five short-form scenes, and in the second-act musical there’s an opening ‘environment’ song. Like every good book musical it’s going to have a ‘want’ song and some kind of status quo to keep that want from happening.”

The resulting show feels like a hybrid, improvised based on audience input but paying close attention to the common elements of legit musicals. “Sometimes improvisers are really loathe to use structures because they think it’s not improv,” Cohen says. “Whereas I feel the song structures and the show structure are great blueprints that almost free you up more. We’re all on the same page, so you know how to join in, you know when to sing the chorus. I try to really emulate a traditional book musical.”

Performing under the auspices of Porchlight makes a difference, says Sniffen. “People were coming to see this that may have never set foot in iO or places like that,” he says of last spring’s audiences. “I think they had higher expectations for a good bit of musical theater.” And if that musical veers toward Toddlers and Tiaras: SVU? They asked for it. “That’s a nice bit of insurance for us,” he says. “We get to say, ‘Here’s the musical you chose.’ ”

Best Musical! Holiday Edition! opens Wednesday 28.

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