By Jenny Neyman
The idea of a play within a play is nothing new, and neither are the tunes in Nikiski Middle-High School’s spring musical. But one added wrinkle — it’s not just a play within a play; it’s the play within the play — gives this performance license to take Broadway in entirely different directions.
“I think it’s kind of cool because it’s just a lot of parodies. It’s really silly and it’s been really fun to do,” said Hannah Tauriainen, a Nikiski freshman, playing Alice the maid. “I think (audiences) will like it because they’ll recognize a lot of the songs, but then they’ll realize there are a ton of goofy lyrics that go along with it.”
The show, “This Ain’t Broadway,” centers around Robert Irwin, played by Conor Dempsey, who is struggling to be a celebrated playwright like his deceased father and grandfather before him. After a string of flops he finally produces a smash hit, never admitting that he actually found the manuscript among his father’s unpublished papers.
With just 48 hours before his publisher’s deadline to present his next great musical, Irwin is wracking his brain and trying to come up with something. The characters of his imagination — which the audience can see and hear, even though the other members of Irwin’s reality can’t, struggle through false start after false start as Irwin tries to conjure up something original.
“They’re terrible. He’s got 48 hours to come up with this brilliant play, but the problem is that anytime he
comes up with something it turns out to be a musical that’s already written, just with different words, so it’s like a parody of these songs,” said director Joe Rizzo, who wrote the script.
There’s his idea for a traveling con man who convinces a small town he can teach the kids to be a great basketball team, where 76 ballgames start the season off, with 102 free throws yet to make — to the tune of “76 Trombones” from “The Music Man.”
Or his idea of a struggling businessman who hatches a scheme that crows would make better, faster delivery birds than carrier pigeons, because, after all, there’s no business like crow business.
Perhaps a public-service message would make a good plot line, Irwin muses. Such as a musical about driving safety, called “Crash-Test Dummies,” with its anchor song, “I Could Have Crashed All Night” (to the tune of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady.”)
“It gives us a good excuse to use a lot of Broadway music without having to pay a bunch in royalties,” Rizzo said. “It’s really just economics. We’ve been running Broadway musicals the last three years and the royalties are just outrageously expensive. So this year, in order to fund next year’s musical, we just decided that we’d just write our own.”
Rizzo wrote a one-act play on the premise of an aspiring playwright struggling with a lack of originality for a drama camp about 10 years ago. The concept has endless opportunities for ridiculousness in the parodies, and Rizzo, choreographer Chris Morin, stage manager Phil Morin and lyricist Mim McKay take it in wide-ranging directions. They mine — and literally mime, at one point — classic Broadway show tunes up to contemporary music, and clean out the theater’s prop storage to incorporate their favorite special effects from past shows.
Godzilla makes an appearance in one song, sung to the tune of “Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” In
a World War II-era spoof, a plane swoops the stage. In another number, a pirate ship runs aground.
“Musicals are just an excuse to go from one elaborate dance number to the next anyway, so I figured with Chris Morin choreographing and Mim McKay writing the music, I couldn’t go wrong. I knew what would carry this music was craziness, having a bunch of great, elaborate dance numbers and songs and special effects,” Rizzo said.
As disjointed as the mess within Irwin’s imagination is, reality does start to make sense for him. He meets Cecilia, played by Nikiski senior Caty Reid. She’s an undercover reporter for The New York Times, sent by her father, the editor, to get the scoop on whether Irwin’s next play will be a flop, proving the first was a fluke.
As the two inevitably fall in love, they come clean to each other, Irwin saying that his hit show wasn’t really his, and Cecilia admitting she’s a reporter. Cecilia vows not to write the story, but her father finds her notes and says he’ll write it himself.
The only way to save Irwin’s reputation and prove he’s not a fraud is to meet the publisher’s deadline with a genuine, original hit musical. With Cecelia’s help, they finally come up with the perfect story — their own situation.
“They basically write an outline for the plot we’ve just seen. We’ve got surrogates for the two main characters on stage, but everybody else is the same, and so we see the whole play in fast-forward. At the end is a splashy new original number, which Mim has written, about how you should be yourself,” Rizzo said.
The show uses special lighting to clue the audience into what’s reality and what’s happening in Irwin’s imagination — for those instances when the appearance of Godzilla isn’t enough of a hint.
“It’s kind of a high-concept kind of show, but the musical numbers are going to carry it, and a lot of the fun effects,” Rizzo said.
Dempsey said he’s been enjoying his first role as a lead character.
“It’s been keeping me really busy and I enjoy it a lot,” he said.
For Reid, the humor has been fun to prepare, even if it’s a little groan-worthy at times. Her favorite joke is one from Alice finding that partygoers had been drinking highballs in the closet.
“‘I guess that makes them a closet drinker,’” Reid said.
“There’s so many cool references and parodies,” Dempsey added.
“They (the audience) will feel a part of it because they’ll know a lot of the songs,” Reid said. “It’s going to be great. There’s something in it for everybody.
“This Ain’t Broadway” will be performed at 7 p.m. this weekend and next, April 29 and 30 and May 6 and 7. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students, available at the door.