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Arts & Culture

Winging It: Broadway's Next H!t Musical

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James Shubinsky

Theater and music lovers venturing into Davidson College's Duke Family Theater on Tuesday, Feb. 24, are advised to check their inner adult at the door. A sense of play and a giddy embrace of the unknown are encouraged when New York City maestros of improvisation, Broadway's Next H!t Musical, take the stage. In return, the audience is guaranteed a show they've never seen, plus songs they've never heard — that's because the quick-witted troupe is making it up as they go along.

"There is nothing (in the show) that we claim to be improvised that is not," says Broadway's Next H!t Musical co-founder and Co-Artistic Director Rob Schiffmann. "Every song, melody, chord change and line of dialog is improvised — it's all completely created in the moment."

Such free-flowing anarchy requires a soupçon of structure. Audience members are encouraged to be active participants in the show and provide that framework.

"When the audience arrives at the theater they are asked to write down an imaginary song title," Schiffmann says. Once the crowd is seated and the lights dimmed, MC Rob Coles introduces the Phony Awards — BNHM's good-natured jab at Broadway's Tonys. Schiffmann notes that Cole's stand-up is tailored to the local audience — so expect some Tar Heel-themed patter. Some of the jokes are written beforehand, but they are the last scraps of scripted material to be encountered that evening.

"The MC introduces the first nominated performer for the Phony awards,” Schiffmann says. “That performer picks one of those song titles out of a hat. On the spot he makes up the musical that song is from and describes the show." The performer — one of BNHM's five ace improvisers — sets the scene and wings the tune with the help of Music Director Gary Adler on piano (Robert Z. Grant and Rachel Bouton round out the cast).

"After that happens four times, the audience votes for which song wins the Phony Award," Schiffmann says. "Next, our actors put on the entire improvised musical that contains the winning song.

"And that's the show."

If Schiffmann makes it all seem like child's play, that’s because — in a key way — it is.

For Schiffmann, the path to improv started in childhood. “I got asked to MC my first grade talent show. I have strong memories of standing on stage being as silly as I possibly could,” he says.

Bitten by the performance bug, Schiffmann got into the theater program at his liberal arts high school in Brooklyn. He joined an improv group at Oberlin College, and landed a stint at the New York City Friars Club after graduation. He next made the leap from the Friars to the national improv troupe, Chicago City Limits, where he met his current comic conspirator, BNHM’s (other) Co-Artistic Director, Deb Rabbai. 

Schiffmann describes divvying up the ensemble’s directorship with Rabbai. “We collaborate on most things,” he says. But since Schiffmann is a musician, he’s “more the leader in the musical realm, but as far as improvisation goes, Deb and I split it fifty-fifty.”

On stage, the two read each other incredibly well.. Each has a sense of where the other is going, yet they still surprise each other, he says, adding that “the nature of improvisation is that you say ‘yes’ to all surprises.”

Given the pair’s chemistry, both onstage and in the wings, launching Broadway’s Next H!t Musical was a no-brainer. They chose an awards ceremony to frame their show because it had never been done. “It’s also the perfect set-up and context for what we do,” he says. “Theatrical improvisation has been around a long time, musical improvisation has been around for a long time. We decided to put both of them together.”

The troupe’s free association and cognitive free-for-all coalesces in a spoof of Broadway musicals but, according to Schiffmann, there is a method to the madcap. The show is designed to incorporate short form and long form improv, the energetic instant of discovery with the enduring appeal of storytelling.

“In the first part of the show – the awards ceremony – (the audience gets) a sense of the overall narrative, but (the actors) are just creating a piece of that story," Schiffman says, adding that the second half is about building a consistent narrative.

“We don't build comedy out of the plot as much as trying to telling a simple, direct story," Schiffman says. "The comedy comes in the details and how you color that story.” It’s the improvisers’ job to stay present within the story, he adds, and “let the characters make the moves.”

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At its core, improv is a community experience, says Schiffmann, a joint collaboration between the players and the audience. “We’re all telling a story together. That's an age-old tradition that’s very powerful.”

It’s also surprising and shocking, but never off color. BNHM prides itself on presenting a family friendly show. Onstage, performing without a net, pushing comedy to the edge, there’s always the temptation to go for the obvious or dirty joke, Schiffmann admits. “But you just have to say ‘no.'

“A professional knows when to call on their inner anarchist and when to stick within the boundaries,” he says. “If we're telling a good story and if we're creating music that is recognizable and true to the emotional moment, it doesn't matter whether we're pushing the boundaries or not.”

BNMH doesn’t strive for adult edginess. Instead, it draws on the childlike wonder that got Schiffmann hooked on funny business in the first place. Magic is what happens when two performers “get on a tightrope and build something together that didn’t exist before,” he says.

“There are no limits in my head as to what the world can be. Luckily I am playing with people that are so good that they go there with me.”

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation.