About a month before their autobiographical four-person musical begins performances on Broadway, the cast members of [title of show] are arguing over who their Sex and the City counterparts are. Including me, director Michael Berresse, and musical director Larry Pressgrove, that makes five gay men and two "honorary gay" straight women on one sectional sofa in midtown Manhattan.
"I'm the Samantha? Have you hung around this one lately?" deadpans Susan Blackwell, gesturing to her costar Heidi Blickenstaff.
"Now let's do The Golden Girls!" pleads composer-lyricist and star Jeff Bowen, who (like everyone) plays a variation of himself with the same name. "Susan, you're so the Sophia."
"We actually want to make T-shirts for [title of show] fans that say, like, 'I'm a Jeff' or 'I'm a Hunter,'" interrupts star Hunter Bell, who also wrote the book.
"I think it's a brilliant idea," agrees Blickenstaff. "People want to be us."
She's teasing, of course, but far from wrong; in certain theater circles, the tight-knit [title of show] gang is the New York City quartet to emulate. After all, theirs is an inspirational story of a little show that could: an original musical about "two nobodies" writing an original musical about "two nobodies" writing an original musical. In roughly 90 minutes, it chronicles its own evolution and trajectory from a last-minute entry in 2004's New York Musical Theatre Festival to an acclaimed 2006 off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre and finally to Broadway, where it kicks off the new season with a July 17 opening at the Lyceum Theatre.
In addition to a trio of Obie awards and placement on various year-end top 10 lists, the Vineyard production of [title of show] earned a 2006 GLAAD Media Award nomination for Best New York Theater. "That made me really proud," Bell recalls, "because it's a play with gay characters, but it's not really about that; that's just an aspect of Jeff and Hunter. So it is a gay play, but it's not a gay play. Not disp araging other pieces that explore that, but it's not a show about coming out or AIDS or even a gay relationship. It's just about these two hopefully awesome gay guys and their lady friends."
These awesome gay guys also happen to be extremely theater-obsessed. Reviewing the show off-Broadway, esteemed critic Charles Isherwood of The New York Times began with the following summons: "Calling all show queens! Or, if you prefer to be more formally addressed, may I have your attention, please, devoted aficionados of musical theater? Have I got a show for you!" Yet while the piece is indeed chock-full of obscure theater references and enough stage-diva shout-outs to make Patti LuPone's head spin, Bowen and Bell seemed to signal the birth of a new, more masculine breed of show queen who dropped f bombs, had sweaty armpits, cracked fart jokes, and frequently referred to masturbation; in other words, show queens for the Superbad set.
"We just set out to be ourselves," Bell insists, "and that's what I love about Judd Apatow and those guys: They are being their specific selves. It wasn't like 'take back the night,, where we set out to make liking musicals cool. It's just about not being afraid or embarrassed to say who you are and what you really love, and that is cool."
"What we tend to associate with a 'show queen' is this big personality who has a bunch of shit to say about something, but we don't do that," says Bowen, affecting a sassy, snappish air. "A lot of the old-school show queens that I know don't really like our show. It made us laugh when we'd get negative responses from the people we were sort of reaching out to. It's kind of like the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons: His passion comes off in such a negative, unappealing way, you immediately associate comic books with overweight, slovenly people who are nasty."
"I love mincing show queens, but I don't like bitchy show queens, and there's a big, big difference," notes Berresse, only a bit older than his 30-something cast at 43. "Those people ultimately didn't react well to the masturbation jokes and silly stuff because they come from an era where they treasure discreetness. These are people who don't believe in equal rights because they feel it takes away what's special about them."
Berresse, a longtime performer himself who recently vacated the role filled by Mario Lop ez in the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, also believes that [title of show] could've been just as successful had its leads been more "show-queeny," or stereotypically effeminate. "It's more important to be honest and vulnerable," he says. "If you're a mincing, crazy, flaming queen, but you're still able to drop in, put everything aside, and really share the truth, then I don't care what you are. That's good storytelling."
"As an actor I've thought, I could play this gayer, but that would mean I'd have to be dishonest," says Bowen. "We can mince around with the best of them, but we don't hide behind any persona. We're just nerds who like musical theater more than we're show queens. Gay nerds."
"G'nerds," corrects Blackwell.
"It's like a new Willy Wonka candy," quips Bell. "G'nerds for kids — now 20% gayer!"
Pressgrove reminds the cast that while they might not have gayed anything up, they certainly never shied away from their sexuality. "You guys had a thing where when anything made you feel hot — meaning something that possibly felt uncomfortable sharing — you knew you were onto something," he says. "Generally speaking, the idea was to reveal something that was close to the bone, whether that was something gay or talking about masturbation, so as not to sit back from a safe place."
It's a risk that's paid off not only in terms of the show's relatability but also in the positive impact it's made on fans, particularly gay teens. Blickenstaff recalls a Facebook message she received from Blake, a young man who has never seen the show but owns the off-Broadway cast recording. "He wrote me about how he's been listening to the track 'Die, Vampire, Die!' on repeat" — an empowering number that describes a "vampire" as "any person or thought or feeling that stands between you and your creative self-expression" — "because he was essentially getting gay-bashed at his high school. The administration didn't help him, so now this kid is being home-schooled and is listening to [title of show]."
"If that's his curriculum," interjects Bell, "he's going to be the smartest kid in town!"
"It rocks my world," Blickenstaff continues, "because he's gaining some perspective, comfort, and self-respect from our show. He's found a place. We're constantly saying, 'If only I would've had what the kids have access to now — Broadway.com, the chat rooms.' Not that I'm Charlize or anything, but the fact that this kid can find me on Facebook is crazy and awesome. We're out there, we're accessible, and a lot of those kids that feel marginalized in some way are like, 'I've found somebody that I can relate to.'"
"'Grown-ups who I know were me once,'" adds Bowen.
"Our high school fans are finding [title of show] at a point where you start to make negotiations, compromises, and shave off parts of yourself to fit in," Pressgrove says. "Gay people are right at the center of that, trying to figure out and hold on to who they are."
Since the off-Broadway run concluded, theater nerds and g'nerds all over the globe have been discovering the show through The [title of show] Show, the cast's video blog series available on the musical's official website, TitleOfShow.com, and on YouTube. In fact, all agree that the momentum sustained by the Internet show, up to episode 9 at press time, was integral to the musical's Broadway transfer.
"Actually, we owe it all to Oprah," Bowen clarifies. "One afternoon Susan, Hunter, and I got together and watched The Secret. It was kind of about what we'd already been doing for a while — just believing in yourself and having the self-confidence to continue tooting your own horn and feeling good about it. So for our first pilot episode — which is redundant — we said, 'Let's just say that we're going to Broadway.' Of course, the immediate reaction was, 'Oh, my God, [title of show] is going to Broadway! Congratulations, you guys!' And all we did was say it."
To be fair, they did add this disclaimer: "We don't know how, we don't know when or where. But we're working on it." Still, the gauntlet had been thrown, the stakes raised, and the buzz begun. Soon big Broadway names like David Hyde Pierce and Xanadu's Cheyenne Jackson were lending their talents to The [title of show] Show, increasing its visibility and the musical's among fans and industry professionals. "It turned into a marketing tool that exceeded what we thought was possible," says Bowen. "If kids are fans of Kelli O'Hara in The Light in the Piazza and we associate that Broadway person with our off-Broadway show, then we must be cool."
"I think it was more about the creative energy that it maintained for us," suggests Berresse about the online project. "Whenever anyone in the business encountered us, what came off of us was so present and positive, and that might not have been true if we hadn't continued to have that creative outlet. Part of our secret is that there's something about us that makes people believe that they can do anything too."
So in the not so great tradition of Bring Back Birdie, Annie Warbucks, and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, might there be a musical sequel already in the works for [title of show]? "Hopefully one better than those sequels!" snaps Berresse, who's immediately met with gasps and hisses from the flop fanatics.
"I'd actually love to see it translate to a different medium," says Bell. "Maybe [title of show] on Ice or [title of show] Babies."
"Ooh, I'd love to see [title of show] Babies on Ice," says Bowen.
The Advocate, July 2008 issue.