About a dozen years ago, back when Viterbo University theater faculty member Matt Campbell was living in New York, he lucked into a free ticket for an off-Broadway production of a new musical with an odd name: “[title of show].”
It’s the kind of a name a show might get if a couple guys tried to write a musical in three weeks and couldn’t come up with a good title so they just leave the space blank. And it’s the kind of title that might make people think somebody didn’t fill in all the spaces in the press release template before sending.
As cryptic as the show’s name is, Campbell came out of the theater after the show very impressed. “I remember saying, ‘This is insanely good,’” he said. “I think it is the originality of the show. For anybody who’s ever had close friends in life … it’s this really intimate view of friendship, on creating something, on the ups and downs of that.”
This summer, Campbell has gotten the chance to direct and act in the show, which is being presented as an independent production — not part of the La Crosse Community Theatre schedule — in the Weber Center for the Performing Arts’ Veterans Studio Theatre, running three weekends starting July 20.
The plot of “[title of show]” can be summed up in a nutshell. It’s a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.
And the two friends writing the musical — Jeff Bowen, who wrote the songs, and Hunter Bell, who wrote the Tony Award-nominated book — played the roles of Jeff and Hunter, while the parts of their friends Susan and Heidi were played by Bowen and Hunter’s actual friends.
“There are a lot of meta moments,” Campbell said. “The whole play is sort of that. Most of these conversations actually happened.”
The Weber Center production of the play fits right in with the meta nature of the show, as it’s basically four friends playing the four friends, and three of the four actors lived in New York and worked as professional actors.
Campbell plays Hunter and a very close friend of his — wife Stephanie Harter Campbell — plays Heidi. Liz Golson, who acted in a New Jersey theater production with Campbell, plays Susan, while Onalaska native Dustin Luecke plays Jeff.
Luecke is the only one who doesn’t have New York/pro actor experience, but Campbell said he fits right in. “I think Dustin feels it, too.”
The four main actors are joined on stage by Shealan Bahr, who serves as the piano accompanist and has a few lines herself.
The small cast is matched by a minimalist set: four chairs and a piano. “It doesn’t need anything else. It’s that good. It’s so well written,” Campbell said, adding that the show stands alone as a unique work. “There is not anything in recent memory or in the music theater canon that mirrors this.”
A big part of what makes “[title of show]” so good is the songs, which Campbell described as conversational and “an ode to music theater.”
“There is a lot of fun, interesting and intricate music,” he said. “They’ve done a lot to make it interesting.”
Considering that it’s a musical about musical theater people writing a musical, there’s material that might seem like inside baseball to some. The New York Times even published a guide to the obscure theater references embedded in “[title of show]” to help get audience members up to speed on some of the inside jokes.
Even so, Campbell said people don’t have to be musical theater experts to fully enjoy “[title of show].”
“I think it’s a great Friday and Saturday night musical,” he said. “You can just leave your troubles at the door.”