June 21, 2023

Princeton Festival Helps to Create “Broadway’s Next Hit Musical”; Cast Improvises the Audience’s Choice of “Phony Award” Winner

“BROADWAY’S NEXT HIT MUSICAL”: Princeton Festival has presented “Broadway’s Next Hit Musical.” George Luton was the music director and pianist for the improvised musical comedy, which played June 14 in a performance tent outside Morven Museum & Garden. Above, from left, are cast members Greg Triggs (Emcee), Deb Rabbai, Pat Swearingen, Heidi Gleichauf, and Annie Schiffmann. (Photo by Carolo Pascale)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The Tony Awards were held earlier this month. As always, the cast and creative teams of several plays and musicals had hoped years of hard work — writing, design, rehearsals, and revision — would be rewarded with a Broadway opening, and the coveted trophy.

Broadway’s Next Hit Musical reverses that sequence of events. The improvised musical comedy, which Princeton Festival presented on June 14, begins with an awards ceremony, in which the audience votes (via applause) for their favorite imagined song and musical. In the second part, the winning show is staged.

Unlike the Tony Awards, which recognize work that probably has undergone few, if any, major changes since the Broadway opening, the “Phony Awards” of Broadway’s Next Hit Musical constitute the inception of the “musical” the audience eventually will see. In the course of performing, the actors draw titles and phrases from a fishbowl that has been placed next to the piano. Using those as a guide, they improvise the dialogue and songs.

Emcee Greg Triggs opens the show with a monologue extolling Princeton (both the town and the university). “Rutgers called up and threatened to break our kneecaps if we did not play there … we said ‘No, thank you, we are waiting to play the best university!’” Of Princeton as a town, Triggs gushes, “I don’t think I would travel if I lived here, because it is such a beautiful place. It has such a wonderful spirit, and you just … feel the ideas percolating!” The performers clearly enjoy tailoring their work to a specific audience, which enthusiastically returns that energy.

Triggs quips that, rather than the “who’s who” of the entertainment world, “We’re the ‘who’s that?’” After welcoming the audience to the “181st Phony Awards” (and thanking us for a “sincere, unmanipulated ovation”), Triggs welcomes cast member Pat Swearingen to the stage, to introduce the first “nominee.”

Swearingen’s segment is Bumble Please, in which a gardener falls in love with, well, a bee — but he has allergies. Heidi Gleichauf and Deb Rabbai join Swearingen in “Sneezy Love” (which the presenter promises to perform “without further achoo,” promising a pun-filled evening). A driving, heavily syncopated piece to which Swearingen gives a sturdy pop-flavored rendition, the number is a vehicle for the gardener to convey his affections for his insect friend.

Next, Triggs invites Annie Schiffmann to the stage to present “DeSantis Got Run Over by a Reindeer” from Black Friday. The performer tells us that, in the show, she portrays a driven political operative (for one of the campaigns opposing DeSantis) who will do anything to help her candidate to win. In the song, the operative tells her campaign manager what has occurred on Black Friday.

Although the title is derived from a well-known holiday novelty song, the melody is not. Indeed, the music — especially Music Director George Luton’s piano accompaniment — has a sense of restlessness that seems to borrow more from “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. (Schiffmann even echoes Idina Menzel’s vocal style.)

Gleichauf is invited on stage to present a nominee, and she deadpans that she has been congratulated for “performing in a tent in Princeton.” Her song is “Love Under the Washington Crossing Monument” from Hidden Places.

Like Bumble Please, Hidden Places deals with a rather complicated love story. This time, it is between the ghost (“lost soul”) of a woman from the 18th century and a living, contemporary man who is able to sense and talk to ghosts. (Gleichauf explains that her character is the ghost.)

Highlighting the show’s spontaneity and interactive nature, a member of the audience (identified as Jerry) is asked to stand, and assigned the role of the choreographer for Hidden Places. Musically, “Love Under the Washington Crossing Monument” is a stirring ballad whose title phrase gives it a bit of rhythmic bounce. Gleichauf gives it some attractively delicate musical phrasing in a performance that underlines how to make a comedy like this work: no matter how absurd the situation, infuse it with sincere emotion.

Rabbai (who, with Rob Schiffmann, is the troupe’s co-artistic director) takes the stage to present “Marriage is Like a Seesaw” from Up and Down. “Thank you for staying, everyone,” she says after two audience members leave.

We are told that the setting of Up and Down is “down South” (below the Mason-Dixon line). Rabbai’s character is a farm wife whose husband suddenly decides that he wants to be a jazz performer. The rousing, up-tempo music of “Marriage is Like a Seesaw,” which Rabbai infuses with considerable vocal power, deftly blends jazz and country idioms.

The nominees having been presented, it is time for the audience to vote for their favorite, which Triggs asks them to do via applause. Hidden Places wins to form the second part.

Before Hidden Places is performed, Triggs reads some of the audience submissions for titles that did not manage to become nominated segments. These include “When Cabbage Crashed the Economy” and “I’ve Got Those Raw Hamburger Blues.” (At one point Triggs deadpans, “If the show isn’t funny, it’s your fault.”)

Like many musicals, Hidden Places opens with an Overture. This is deftly improvised by Luton, who utilizes the piano’s full range, punctuating the piece with trills. The melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a central motif, eventually giving way to “Love Under the Washington Crossing Monument.”

In the opening number, an up-tempo piece with the pulse of a march, the cast — dressed in costumes that evoke the 18th century — admonishes us to know our “history.”

The subsequent dialogue makes clear that Hidden Places will borrow plot elements from the other nominees. The first scene recalls the events of Black Friday.

“Not Me,” a duet for Rabbai and Swearingen, is a vehicle for the latter’s character, who falls in love with the ghost, to express his discomfort around people. If the number (along with others in this latter half of the show) tends to lack the musical inventiveness of some of the earlier ones, it adds a nice layer when Rabbai’s line “You should come out more often with me, and have a ball” is sung in triple meter.

“400 Years,” which returns to the melodic material of “Love Under the Washington Crossing Monument,” is a ballad for the ghost (played by Gleichauf) to express her longing for physical human connection. Most musicals give their protagonists an “I want” song in which to articulate the wishes they will pursue over the course of the show, and “400 Years” fills that role here.

Two of the songs convey a similar theme. In a number that reprises “Not Me,” Rabbai’s character advises the male protagonist (Swearingen) to “love the people you see every day,” urging him to abandon his ghostly romance. Later, his female friends (Rabbai and Schiffmann) prod him to “Live for the Living,” in a number that recalls a scene from Company in which well-meaning friends criticize the protagonist’s choice of romantic partner.

The ghost, meanwhile, is reminded by the other spirits that her function is to guide humans, not become romantically involved with them. The show is improvised, but it is clear that, just as Luton has a repertoire of musical templates, the actors have story beats and an overall structure in mind — and themes that they want to discuss (such as societal interference with love).

Hidden Places resolves its plot when the ghost somehow comes back to life, muting the friends’ objections to the liaison. In the Finale, “History Together,” the full quartet extols the ability to find “love in hidden places.” The attractive lighting for this number creates a starry sky.

It is fitting that Broadway’s Next Hit Musical — a show that is crafted from improvisation — parodies the Tony Awards, a ceremony that celebrates Broadway, a notoriously exorbitant market whose impossibly high stakes render spontaneous playfulness all but impossible. Against the backdrop of commercial theater that is carefully packaged and branded, Broadway’s Next Hit Musical offers exhilarating whimsy.

For more information about The Princeton Festival 2023, which runs through June 25, visit princetonsymphony.org. To learn more about “Broadway’s Next Hit Musical,” visit broadwaysnexthitmusical.com.