To understand how the quirky, self-referential metamusical called [title of show]
came to be, you merely have to watch its opening scene. In it, a pair of obsessive musical-theater aficionados and aspiring composers named Hunter and Jeff decide to apply to a new-musicals festival by writing a musical about themselves writing a musical to apply to the festival.
And once you’ve wrapped your head around that, consider that the characters of Hunter and Jeff were originally played by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, a pair of obsessive musical-theater aficionados and aspiring composers who decided to apply to the New York Musical Theatre Festival by…well, you can probably fill in the rest.
On a conference call from their New York homes, Bell and Bowen, both 40, say the inciting incident onstage essentially matches its real-life genesis: Staring down a submission deadline just three weeks away, the friends made a pact to send in whatever they came up with in that time.
“Jeff and I had worked and collaborated together before, but we had been a little dormant creatively,” Bell says. “We were like, let’s use this deadline to help us get off our asses and create something. And as we met, the thing that made us laugh and want to go write and create more was documenting the conversations we were having about writing, about musical theater, about our process and everything in-between.” The show also featured the pair’s actor friends Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell, who, like Bowen and Bell, played versions of themselves.
“I think they’re kind of heightened versions of us on the stage, but they do start with the seeds of our own personalities,” Bell says. “And then there are things that—we call it ‘real Hunter’ and ‘real Jeff’—would never do but are consistent with the characters’ arc in the show. So it is a combo platter.”
[title of show]—the name taken from NYMF’s application form—was a hit at the 2004 fest. Encouraged, Bell and Bowen continued to develop the material, working with Blickenstaff, Blackwell and director Michael Berresse; an expanded version got a commercial run Off Broadway in 2006. That run and the cast recording that came with it gained the show a small but loyal following, yet the creative team was unsure of the next step. YouTube was just taking off, Bowen notes, and they owned full rights to the characters they’d created.
“We had all gone to Susan’s house one day and watched The Secret on video, and we were like, ‘Oh, that’s funny, we should just say that we’re gonna go to Broadway,’ ” Bowen says. “Just say out loud our goal and our destiny and see what happens.”
Thus was the [title of show] show born, a YouTube series about the fake Hunter and Jeff’s journey to Broadway. Its rapidly growing fan base sparked enough interest from producers to get the real Hunter and Jeff a brief, unlikely Broadway run in 2008, just long enough to earn a Tony nomination for best book.
And now [title of show] is receiving productions around the country, such as Northlight’s Chicago premiere this week, which the creators plan to see. “There’s a little window of surrealness,” Bell says of seeing other actors such as Northlight’s Matt Crowle and Stephen Schellhardt play their characters. “But a lot of people don’t know the background. They just have their season subscription, and they go and see a show about Hunter and Jeff.”
[title of show] starts previews Friday 4 and opens Friday 11 at Northlight Theatre. See Resident companies.