By ELLEN FAGG WEIST | The Salt Lake Tribune
For everybody who has an unfinished novel in a drawer or a dream of opening a muffin shop, Hunter Bell recommends seeing the quirky little 2008 Broadway musical “[title of show],” which he created with his friends Jeff and Susan and Heidi.
Bell hopes the small-scale musical, which he wrote with his best friend, composer Jeff Bowen — featuring a set of four mismatched chairs, a cast of four actors and a pianist, all wearing street clothes — will inspire other people to create their kind of art. Bell will be in Salt Lake City for the regional premiere of the musical and to present a creativity workshop at Sugar Space. (See box for registration details.)
Fans of “[title of show]” know the backstory of the musical, because it serves as the story’s plot. It’s a musical that aims to stay true to the way real people talk, and that includes a variety of f-bombs, but also the kind of interruptions and jabs and made-up words that reveal the intimacy of longtime friendship.
“I’ve been in a lot of plays that require a certain naturalism, but there’s something about Hunter’s script and Jeff’s lyrics that are different,” says Utah-based actor Austin Archer, who plays Hunter Bell in the Salt Lake City production.
“You have to bring it up a bit theatrically just so the ball doesn’t drop, but it reads like two friends sitting in an apartment. So many lines sound like a mistake, like somebody went up on a line or something, but that’s the way they were written in the script. It’s a blend between letting the audience know we’re in control and making it feel like we’re just flying by the seat of our pants.”
The plot of “[title of show]” also serves as a theater-world Cinderella story, the kind of backstory that fuels the creative ambitions of every theater artist. Bell and Bowen learned about an upcoming deadline to submit new work for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The only problem was they had never written a show, and the deadline was only three weeks away.
The musical’s story grew out of the material of their lives: “I loved being in the room with friends and collaborators, and I wanted to make stuff up,” Bell says in a phone interview.
So working around their offbeat day jobs, Bell and Bowen wrote a show about what they knew: being nobodies in New York and longing to be a part of the theater world, which they loved. Along the way, they roped in their friends Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, who also became characters in the show.
Their fantasies about winning a Tony Award become a song in the show (“The Tony Award Song”), as does their challenge to overcome their creative insecurities (“Die, Vampire, Die!”). Even the idea that a self-referential, possibly navel-gazing musical wouldn’t appeal to everybody earned its own song (“Nine People’s Favorite Thing”).
You’re reading about the show now because it was selected for the festival, but also because the little musical continued on to another life — and another ending — as Hunt and Bowen chronicled what happened next in a series of low-key “[title of show]” podcasts. Those YouTube episodes helped sell tickets — “like a web audience coming to life,” Hunt says — when it was produced at off-off and off-Broadway theaters and eventually wound up on Broadway.
The web series worked organically to promote a show that was basically about writing a show, and at the cusp of the social media revolution, the creators were early adapters of using its tools to sell musical theater tickets.
Just as the creators imagined, the success of the musical changed their professional lives. Bell, Bowen and director Michael Berresse won Obie Awards for the off-Broadway production, and Bell was nominated for a Tony Award for the book. Bell and Bowen now pay their rent from their art, as they continue to collaborate on theater works and talk on the phone just about every day.
“Most of my opportunities came from that calling card,” says Bell, who went on to write a show for a Disney cruise, a TV pilot and other musicals, including the book for “Found,” a new musical based on the story of Davey Rothbart’s Found magazine, currently premiering off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company.
Now the characters of Hunter and Jeff and Susan and Heidi are being performed by other actors at regional and university theaters around the country, and Bell hopes it’s received as part of the tradition of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland (“hey, gang, let’s put on a show”) in the classic movie “Babes in Arms.”
“I love this art form, musical theater, and I believe it’s possible to tell small stories,” he says, while TV shows like “Glee” and “American Horror Story” have made the idea of contemporary characters breaking into song seem like part of the zeitgeist. “I let my freak flag fly, and I wasn’t vanquished for it. At the end of the day, you’ve got to rock your art and what you believe in.”
Directing the show is a labor of love for Jason Bowcutt, a now Utah-based director who lived in New York and was along for the ride as Bell, his close friend and acting colleague, wrote the show. “There are a few shows that just sit very deeply in my heart,” says Bowcutt, who directs community and performing-arts programs for the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.
While living in New York City, Bowcutt saw four variations of the show, “at every stage of its whole New York life,” including its birth at the Musical Theatre Festival in 2004 and its move to Broadway in 2008.
Along the way, he was making his own transition, from pursuing acting to becoming a director and producer. Bowcutt co-founded the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, and the cast of “[title of show]” wrote an original song for the kickoff awards show in 2004.
“The people who know this show have a passion for this show,” says Bowcutt, and one of those people is Archer, who admits he’s slightly intimidated to be playing the character of Hunter Bell on opening night when the real Hunter Bell, a now-Tony-nominated writer, will be sitting in the audience.
Archer, who just finished back-to-back runs in Salt Lake Acting Company’s “Saturday’s Voyeur” as well as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “The Rocky Horror Show” concert at Pioneer Theatre Company, says he and his theater friends listened repeatedly to the soundtrack of “[title of show]” while studying at Weber State University.
Like every theater person, his pack of theater nerds joked and dreamed about writing their own show someday, a show true to their own humor and artistic aesthetic. “The big difference between us and Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen is that they did it.”