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Taking ‘[show]’ on the road

Musical has gotten pair to Broadway - and beyond

Hunter Bell (left) and Jeff Bowen created their autobiographical musical '[title of show]' on a lark for the 2004 New York musical Theater Festival. They performed it off-Broadway before taking it to Broadway for a brief run two years ago. Hunter Bell (left) and Jeff Bowen created their autobiographical musical "[title of show]" on a lark for the 2004 New York musical Theater Festival. They performed it off-Broadway before taking it to Broadway for a brief run two years ago. (Michael Mahoney, Hat Head Studios)
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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NEW YORK - The coffee shop is eerily empty on a cold winter morning. Across the street, the Port Authority bus terminal bustles, but here, amid the mismatched chairs, the silver and gold tinsel, and the Obama/Biden signs, there is not a customer to be seen until Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen walk through the door, dragging along a roller bag packed with clothes for an upcoming photo session.

Is there some kind of meta-joke here? Does it mean something when the playwrights, asked to choose a location of some significance for an interview, opt for a place called the Cupcake Cafe? That after writing a musical that, in one iteration, mocked photo shoots, they show up tugging a suitcase packed with alternative outfits? That they made it to Broadway with a show poking fun at theatrical spectacle and then immediately landed a gig writing a musical for Disney Cruise Line?

It’s hard to disentangle the homage from the sendup with these two, and that, of course, is part of the joke.

Bell and Bowen’s hunger to succeed in a theatrical world that they both love and lampoon is the engine that propels “[title of show]’’ - the autobiographical musical they crafted on a lark for the 2004 New York Musical Theater Festival and then, thanks to a cult following, some decent press, and a successful off-Broadway staging, transferred to Broadway for a brief run in 2008. Now SpeakEasy Stage Company is mounting the show’s New England premiere, which opens today in the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.

The show chronicles the journey of “two nobodies in New York’’ - obsessive theater fans named Hunter and Jeff - who set about writing, in the words of one of their lyrics, “a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.’’ The show is packed with inside jokes about long-forgotten Broadway shows and little-known Broadway stars, but it also, more broadly, paints a portrait of two artists struggling to create something original and significant that can succeed in a competitive and commercial marketplace.

The show, in which they also starred, was a success of sorts, and now, as it is performed in regional theaters around the country, Bell and Bowen are hoping to reach a new audience of fans.

The two men are both gay 38-year-old Southerners who grew up loving musicals and moved to New York hoping to somehow make their way in the theater business. Both of them - no surprise here - collect Playbills.

“I was a little weirdo,’’ says Bell, who grew up in North Carolina and Atlanta and recalls his first childhood weekend of New York theatergoing, when he saw “Dancin’ ’’ and “Annie.’’ He went on to perform in community theater, listen repeatedly to cast albums of shows like “A Chorus Line’’ and “Evita,’’ and take high school trips to New York, where, he says, “it started, like, washing over emotionally - I would totally wait at the stage door with my Playbill, like a stalker, waiting for people to sign.’’ He also still remembers the moment when the sleeve of his “Cats’’ cast album first got damaged, and says, “It was like somebody scratched my Maserati.’’

“Cats’’ even figures in “the [title of show] show,’’ a series of Web videos they shot to promote their musical, in which the ringtone on Bell’s cellphone is a few iconic notes from that Broadway staple.

“Here’s the secret: we all liked ‘Cats’ - I know every word to that show,’’ explains Bell, whose real-life ringtone is not, in fact, the opening of “The Invitation to Jellicle Ball.’’ “It becomes like a joke - a party joke or a sitcom joke. But I was mesmerized by Betty Buckley singing ‘Memory.’ I wish I could be more sassy and mock it, but I loved it.’’

Bowen was raised in Florida and wasn’t introduced to musical theater until high school, when he played a leading role as the gambler Nathan Detroit in a school production of “Guys and Dolls.’’

“I kind of fell into it then, and really hard,’’ Bowen says. “ ‘Les Miz’ had just come out in London, so that was one of my first things, but I went out and bought everything - ‘Superstar,’ ‘Evita,’ ‘Dreamgirls.’ Any album that they had at Camelot Music, in the mall, I would get.’’ Bowen didn’t make it to New York until he was 20 years old, when he saw “Aspects of Love,’’ “City of Angels,’’ and “Les Miserables.’’

Both men graduated from college in 1993 and moved to New York, hoping to find a way to earn a living in theater. Bell took jobs in a book warehouse and a catering company; Bowen found work at a talent management agency and doing website design. Two years later, in 1995, they met at a winter theater program in Virginia, and they became friends and collaborators.

“We learned that we work well together, and we were having fun collaborating, and then the festival came up, and we’re like, let’s try to submit something for this festival,’’ Bowen says. “We didn’t have the rights to anything, so we were going to do something original if we were going to do anything at all. So we wrote this brilliant musical.’’

The show is small-scale, with a keyboard player and four characters: Hunter and Jeff, of course, and two friends, Heidi and Susan, collaborators in the creation and staging of the self-referential musical. In New York, the four characters were played by themselves (Heidi by Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan by Susan Blackwell), but now, as the play is staged by regional theaters and adapted for colleges, the characters are played by others. In Boston, director Paul Daigneault cast relatively unknown actors for the parts, including Jordan Ahnquist as Jeff and Joe Lanza as Hunter, hoping to reinforce the notion of the characters as just breaking into theater.

Bowen and Bell, who plan to come to Boston to see the SpeakEasy staging Jan. 30 and 31, are getting used to seeing themselves played by others - the show was staged last year at Baldwin-Wallace College, outside Cleveland - and they say the use of other actors was an adjustment for them, but probably not much of a hurdle for audiences. Bowen says anecdotal evidence suggests that much of the Broadway audience did not even realize the actors onstage were playing themselves.

“The fact that we play those parts on Broadway was just sort of an extra level of meta that the play doesn’t really need,’’ Bowen says.

The two have adapted the script slightly for use by regional theaters - it is less insidery, so some of the Broadway references are a little more contemporary and better-known. Meanwhile they are developing a sitcom for ABC about two brothers in New York - one gay and one straight - in which, Bowen says, “hilarity ensues.’’ And there is the Disney musical, a comedy called “Villains Tonight,’’ which features many of Disney’s most famous nasty characters, and starts with the premise that Hades has lost his evil touch.

“It might be fun to do [title of show] again when we’re 60,’’ Bowen says. “Susan always wanted to do the show in a wheelchair. The costumes are bubble-wrapped in a box somewhere. I’ll have less hair on top, but longer and whiter and in a ponytail, and we’ll all get new veneers, so we’ll have really great teeth but be 97 years old.’’

Bell has a similar dream.

“I plan to be at an old folks home, sitting next to Jeff, talking about ‘[title of show].’ ’’

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

[title of show]

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Feb. 13. Tickets: $30-$54; discounts available. 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com