From Singin’ in the Rain to A Chorus Line, there is a grand tradition of musicals about making a musical. But, as its name suggests, [Title of Show] gets extra meta. It was written in 2004 by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell as a last-minute submission for the New York Musical festival. Its plot follows two pals, Jeff and Hunter, as they – stick with me here – write a show about a show that they’re writing for the New York Musical festival. “We could put this exact conversation in the show,” suggests Hunter. But, he wonders, “would other people want to watch something like that?”
The answer is it depends on how meta you like your theatre and how much you love musicals. [Title of Show] comes stuffed with obscure Broadway references and industry in-jokes as the cast announce their own key changes and its nerdy creators argue over whether you can rhyme sweeter with theatre. At times it threatens to deconstruct to the point of self-destruction.
This lockdown version from Lambert Jackson Productions and the London Coliseum makes a virtue of necessity by filming the backstage drama in a rehearsal room at the Coliseum, with musical director Ben Ferguson on piano. Marc Elliot and Tyrone Huntley share an easy rapport as Jeff and Hunter, the self-confessed “nobodies in New York” mustering the energy required to make it big. Both are in fine voice, as are Lucie Jones (playing a sparky aspiring star, Heidi) and Jenna Russell (as Susan, who has swapped off-Broadway for an office job). Director Josh Seymour finds some appealing framings within these four walls, most effectively in the number What Kind of Girl Is She?, in which Heidi and Susan sing about each other from opposite sides of the room, separately confiding in one of the men.
After Bowen and Bell’s show was accepted for the 2004 festival, the duo extended the musical to reference its own development and continued to do so as it was produced off and then on Broadway. Ironically, these additions to the script are less compelling and the show delivers diminishing returns, although its occasional longueurs do at least reflect that unique backstage formula of humdrum and pizzazz.
Bowen delivers some witty rhymes (“My show could be a success, and not a big mess like Chess”) and Bell’s book is also riddled with wordplay (Hunter is chastised as a “procrastibator” for getting distracted by porn). Amid the weaker puns and the occasionally wearying postmodern playfulness, there are enjoyably wry (or bitchy) reflections on art and fame, industry hierarchies and what audiences are thought to want. Die, Vampire, Die! is a catchy and triumphant ode to battling your inner demons and not compromising your creativity. The song An Original Musical is a duet between Jeff and a blank piece of paper, played as a white sock puppet, with the unlimited possibilities of theatre shown to be both inspiring and overwhelming. It may well get some lockdown viewers reaching into their own sock drawers for an unfinished script.
In a year where industry chatter has revolved around reduced capacities, cancellations and Oliver Dowden’s roadmap, there is a delightful escapism in this quartet’s gossip about the bright lights of Broadway and spotting Bernadette Peters in your audience.
• Available online 12-14 November.