This loving tribute to a musical that never was has the potential to become the next Rocky Horror.
Earlier this year, we bid farewell to Smash, an hour-long drama series on NBC that depicted the backstage goings-on at two Broadway musicals. The first, Bombshell, written by a pair of seasoned, award-winning authors, explored the life of Marilyn Monroe. The second, Hit List, by a pair of green bartenders (one of whom would later die in a horrific car accident), was about…oh, any number of things, but mostly the price of fame. Bombshell, which won the (fictional) 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical, received a very real cast recording. Hit List, which worked its way from the (fictional) Winter Fringe Festival to the (fictional) Manhattan Theatre Workshop to Broadway's (real but fictional) Barrymore Theatre, was sort of the bastard child of the series, bringing all of its problems to light in the fact that, well, it didn't really make sense.
A small group of Hit List devotees — namely, Smash show runner Joshua Safran, scribe Julia Brownell, and 54 Below director of programming Jennifer Ashley Tepper — set out to prove the naysayers wrong on December 8 and 9 by presenting a concert staging of this formerly fictional but now very real musical at 54 Below, and the result was, shockingly, promising. More than promising, actually. Hit List, with a book written for the occasion by Brownell, and songs from the show-within-the-TV-series by Drew Gasparini, Joe Iconis, Andrew McMahon (of the band Jack's Mannequin), Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and Lucie Silvas, actually has a lot of potential.
Brownell's book follows the structural plot of Hit List (as depicted on screen), telling the story of Jesse, a gifted young songwriter who takes up with the potentially suicidal Amanda, a gifted young singer without a "voice." His songs lull her into bed, and after a one-night stand, she vanishes, tunes in tow. Cut to months later when Jesse hears his music on the radio sung by "Nina Hope," Amanda's new persona. Jesse jets to Los Angeles to confront the now-rising pop singer, whose desire for fame starts to lead her down a dangerous path, spurning both her friends and enemies (including rival pop singer "The Diva") along the way.
Safran, Brownell, and Tepper lured back Smash cast members Jeremy Jordan, Andy Mientus, and Krysta Rodriguez to participate in the concerts, with Jordan and Rodriguez reprising the roles they played in the fictional production, Jesse and The Diva, respectively. Mientus, who appeared on the series as the musical's ill-fated coauthor, played Jesse's pal Nick, with Smash newcomer Carrie Manolakos taking on the role of Amanda from her TV portrayer, Katharine McPhee. A backup ensemble consisting of Molly Hager, Eric Michael Krop, Julia Mattison, and Monet Julia Sabel filled out the other roles, with Eric William Morris playing Nina's manager. Gifted performers all, Jordan, Manolakos, Rodriguez, and Mientus sold the material as if they really were performing it on Broadway; Jordan, in particular, stood out, and this one-off concert is the best work I've seen from him to date.
At certain points, Brownell's book was a bit too self-serious; at others, it played like high camp (it was impossible not to heavily groan at lines to the effect of "I'm not writing for you anymore. I'm going back to Brooklyn.") I was most impressed by how well Brownell weaved in the bill's 19 songs, all of which were written by talented composers whose own unique authorial voices didn't seem like they'd be able to gel as a whole. And yet, they did, exceedingly well. (The tight, six-member band, consisted of musical director Benjamin Rauhala, Charlie Rosen, Shannon Ford, Alisa Horn, Dennis Michael Keefe, and Hiroko Taguchi playing Rosen's first-rate orchestrations.)
Ultimately, Safran, Brownell, and Tepper overwhelmingly succeeded at what they set out to do: pay tribute to a TV show they believed in. The concerts sold out in under an hour when they first went on sale and the packed house ate the show up, laughing on cue, cheering their heads off, and singing along in a manner that I'd only seen previously at screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perhaps Hit List can become the next monthly midnight feature.