IF YOU GO
What: Self-referential musical about two guys writing a musical
When: 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 20; 8 p.m. Sunday, April 22
Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers
Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org
Something else: Free parking across the street
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FORT MYERS — If the road from North Fort Myers High School to Broadway doesn't seem obvious, just talk to Jeff Bowen. The 1989 alumnus wrote the music and lyrics for 2009 Tony nominee "[title of show]," playing tonight and Sunday at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers.
"[title of show]" plays at 11:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Sunday at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers. Taylor Murphy Hale, Robert Mitchel Owenby, Julianne Avolio and Hallie Wage star in the production (read the review). Tickets are $20; call (239) 332-4488 or online at floridarep.org.
The show, directed by Jason Parrish, is Florida Rep's fourth annual Intern Showcase, which features the work of the performing and creative members interns who've been with the theater since last fall. Nearly everything on the stage and in the show - from actors to props to costumes to the sets - was masterminded by Florida Rep's crew of young professionals.
"[title of show]" is "a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical." Bowen and fellow New Yorker Hunter Bell wrote the show in three weeks, revised it over a period of years along with actress friends Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff and opened at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre in 2008. The unique title comes from a blank spot on the festival entry form.
Speaking by phone from New York's Union Square Park (where someone had apparently hauled out a piano), Bowen describes the process as "challenging" and "exhilarating."
"I think we stated in the play, the deadline is three weeks away, so let's just do this to get us off our asses," Bowen laughed. "We were just like 'let's have something to do for three weeks.'"
The pair wrote their show in "old school longhand" on legal pads, although they've since upgraded to Google Docs.
"We always laugh," Bowen jokes "Were we just functioning like they did in 1972?"
In casting about for ideas, the pair immediately started entertaining each other.
"We were getting a bang out of what it was we were creating," Bowen said. "and right away sort of liked the idea of documenting the idea
They decided to write an original musical after discarding plans to adapt any existing property - as chronicled in the song "An Original Musical," which features Bowen's character rapping with a foul-mouthed blank legal pad.
"Even trying to find out who owns the theatrical rights to something takes weeks, even months," Bowen said. "Then you find out 'oh its this old man' and you have to him or his wife or a widow or whatever. It's a long process. With three weeks, let's just make up our own thing and own all the characters."
What emerged was a 90-minute musical-comedy hybrid about neurotic theater nerds enmeshed in the creative process, often at war with themselves and each other.
And something deliciously, over-the-top fun - like rhyming "Bernadette" (as in Peters) with "marmoset."
"As I was writing "Part of It All," the song is supposed to get more and more outlandish," Bowen said. "I was just thinking what was a ridiculous thing to want? None of us are ever going to want a [expletive] fur coat! Why not! After you have lunch with Bernadette you should at least get a fur coat!"
Thus was born: "Our show, though small / Will have been part of it all ... Part of Lunch With Bernadette / Part of a coat of marmoset."
But not everything that audiences see in the show really happened.
"I lose track when I go to see productions," Bowen mused. "I'm like 'did that happen?'"
Other times, he sees the process playing out on stage exactly as it did years ago.
"I'm like 'oh that totally happened,' Bowen laughed. "Then I'm like 'that never happened. We totally made that up!"
There's a pause as Bowen reflects on the show.
"I don't know." Bowen stops. He starts again. "I really kind of lose track. At least fifty percent of it is true or a documentation of something that was similar to truth."
Bowen points to the snarky back-and-forth between the Jeff and Hunter characters over grammar as one of the show's fictional elements.
"Hunter always laughs because Jeff has lines where he grammatically corrects Hunter," Bowen says, "but the truth is Hunter is a total grammar nerd. He took one for the team and made the character of Hunter sound kind of like a dumb-dumb sometimes."
"[title of show]" doesn't shy away from showing the pressures of creation - and the tension the quartet faced trying to move their musical from a production at the New York Theatre Festival to off-Broadway to Broadway.
"There was a lot of tension," Bowen said. "There definitely was."
The song "Awkward Photo Shoot" chronicles some of that. During the process, the collaborators were working on the show while juggling jobs - and sometimes fielding other job opportunities.
"As close as we all are, we had moments that were .... rough," Bowen said after searching for the right word. "You're dealing with outside forces - producers, theater owners - and it was nerve-wracking. It was hard to keep the posse together and keep them believing in something when rugs get pulled out from underneath you."
One of the strongest messages to emerge from "[title of show]" is the joy of friendship and collaboration.
"Our friendship is always taking precedence over whatever project we're working on," Bowen said. "We've all had tons of therapy. ... Collaboration is like a marriage. We'll spend five hours talking about our feelings and 30 minutes working on the play."
"[title of show]" plays at 11:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Sunday at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers. Tickets are $20; call (239) 332-4488 or online at floridarep.org.