All right, musical theater fans, here’s a multiple-choice quiz to test your knowledge. “[title of show]” is:
a) a quirky meta-musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical
b) a 2004 musical theater festival hit that went on to off-Broadway and Broadway runs
c) the production prompting calls to Signature Theatre to inquire what exactly is the title of the show being advertised
d) a work bold enough to asks its audiences to contemplate the concept of Paris Hilton starring in “Mame”
e) an unabashed valentine to musical theatre.
It’s partly a trick question, but if you answered “all of the above” you’re worth your weight in original-cast albums. If you’re still puzzled, don’t worry. Signature Theatre’s production of “[title of show]” begins April 6, and this question and more (such as whether or not the titles of forgotten musical flops like “Kwamina” and “Hot September” make good punch lines) will be authoritatively answered.
With music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen and a book by Hunter Bell, “[title of show]” follows characters named Jeff and Hunter in their quest to write an original musical. In the course of their work, they enlist a pair of actress friends, Heidi and Susan (originally played by Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell) to fill out the cast. If you’re starting to feel a sort of hall-of-mirrors vibe to the whole project, you’re absolutely on target. “[title of show]” is indeed self-referential but, says actor James Gardiner, who plays Hunter in the Signature mounting, there’s a deeper theme to the work: “It’s really about why we as artists fell in love with theatre in the first place. Connections between people and the whole collaborative process are what the show is about at its core.”
Bowen and Bell have stuffed “[title of show]” with allusions to the whole dizzy, glorious universe of musical theatre. An entire song is crafted from the titles of legendary stinkers, for example, and there are affectionate shout-outs to Comden and Green and Kander and Ebb. Being a musical theatre aficionado isn’t required, though, to fall under the show’s spell. Says Director Matthew Gardiner (James’s twin brother), “Even though the piece is filled with theatre references that more than half of the audience won’t understand, at its root it’s about having a dream and following it.” Though it might seem corny, he adds, “it’s what everybody in the audience can connect with: people putting themselves on the line and making their vision come true.”
For Sam Ludwig, who plays Jeff, “[title of show]” is “a celebration of the medium” of musical theatre.
“This is a story about people who love that way of telling a story enough to want to tell a story about how much they love it.” Which seems to be a very “[title of show]” way of putting it.
Casting Signature’s production of “[title of show],” for which its creators were not only its original cast but also its characters, was a challenge for Matthew Gardiner. “We saw at least 60 people for all the roles.” One decision, though, was easier to make than others: “I think James was a very obvious choice from the beginning, because it’s a story that was very personal to him — he’s written a Broadway musical [“Glory Days,” which originated at Signature] and he knows what it’s like to follow that path.”
Gardiner found the rest of his cast late in the audition process: Sam Ludwig and Helen Hayes Award winners Erin Driscoll (Heidi) and Jenna Sokolowski (Susan) were called in together with James Gardiner, and the director found their chemistry “just jelled and worked.”
“One of the reasons is that the four of them know each other so well from working at Signature and there was already a sense of camaraderie that wouldn’t be false or fabricated” — a key essential for a show that’s about the bonds of creative friendship.
Erin Driscoll finds parallels with her character in her own theatrical life. “Luckily, Heidi and I are pretty similar” as musical theater actresses, she says. Driscoll has the show’s most touching song, “A Way Back to Then,” Heidi’s recollection of first being entranced with performing (“Dancing in the back yard/Kool-Aid mustache and butterfly wings/Hearing Andrea McArdle sing/From the hi-fi in the den”) and of setting off with a U-Haul for New York to make her mark on stage. “I definitely have that experience and know exactly what it’s like,” she says.
Though “[title of show]” is a decidedly offbeat project, its charms span both its risk-taking and its firm roots in musical theatre traditions. Sam Ludwig finds the integration of songs and scenes “so satisfyingly musical.” James Gardiner points out that “it follows the musical theatre formula but is so willing to break it every rule in the book while it’s following every rule” at the same time.
There’s even the requisite musical theatre romance — of sorts. The cast has joked that “Heidi and Susan are the love story,” says Erin Driscoll. Initially wary of each other’s differences (to Susan, Heidi is “so uptown, and fancy, and Broadway,” while Heidi finds Susan “so downtown and funky and sassy”), they “become good, good friends” in the course of the show. “Their relationship is the one that changes and grows throughout the piece,” she says. For Sam Ludwig, “the guys push the story along and the girls make it more interesting.”
In a sense, “[title of show]” serves as a kind of contemporary bookend to Signature’s production of “Showboat” earlier this season. That classic 1927 work also focuses on show folk, and holds up theatre as both a dreamy alternate universe and an escape from real life. “[title of show]” takes real life and makes it into the stuff of musical theatre. Bowen and Bell and company are as enamored of life upon the wicked stage as Kern and Hammerstein, and the depth of that affection gives “[title of show]” its heart.
For all its meta-musical smarts, “[title of show]” is for Matthew Gardiner “a simple, honest story about a friendship,” and he and the cast are counting on audiences to embrace the show on that level.
“Even if you don’t know the references, you will enjoy it. Guaranteed.”
And there will be no quizzes afterward.
“[title of show]” plays at Signature Theatre April 6 through June 27. Go to [www.signature-theatre.org](http://www.signature-theatre.org) for more information.