Broadway's Next Hit Musical


Editorial Review

By Maura Judkis
Friday, September 19, 2014

Name that tune? Probably.
By Maura Judkis
Friday, September 19, 2014

“Broadway’s Next Hit Musical” is about the baby panda, Bao Bao. It’s about a tangled--up slinky. It’s about your awkward, fumbling first kiss. It’s about cronuts.

Basically, it’s about whatever you want it to be: The show is an audience--directed, improvised musical. When you enter, you’re asked to write a suggestion for a song title on a slip of paper, and cast members will randomly draw four of those slips. In teams, they’ll come up with one song each based on those suggestions, and, in an award--show format that mocks the Tonys, the audience will vote on which one they’d like to see as a full--fledged musical. The second half of the show is devoted to producing that musical, which is made up on the spot.

“Sometimes people think we have a set selection of templates for songs, [for which] we know the chord progressions, and it’s going to kind of sound like something from ‘Cabaret,’ ” says Deb Rabbai, one of the show’s founders and performers. “We don’t do that. We really live in the moment of inspiration.”

Every show is different. The actors can create a musical from scratch using such improv and musical skills as rhyming, harmony and syncopation, which they practice constantly. That goes for the pianist, too.

“We’re listening to each other at such a deep level,” Rabbai says. “Each one of them is making offers and accepting those musical offers in the moment. . . . They don’t know exactly where I’m going, and I don’t know exactly where I’m going either.”

And they want to make it up from scratch, which means that you should give them an original idea. One of Rabbai’s biggest pet peeves is when someone writes down the name of an existing song, like “Over the Rainbow,” or alter the name of a song just slightly.

“We like people to really take that risk and mine their imagination,” she says.

Another pet peeve: messy handwriting. And, suggestions that are too salacious for the family--friendly show get thrown out.

When Rabbai can’t read the title out loud, she says, “then the audience thinks we somehow are preplanning. . . . It’s not a fun moment to have to reject something.”

So what works? “We definitely prefer things that are more poetic and simpler,” Rabbai says, “not because we can’t rise to the challenge, but the simpler and more poetic it is, the more realistic it can be in a song.”

That means a title like “The Terrible Blind Date” gives them a lot of creative latitude, but one like “Sarah Palin’s Backyard Brawl” corners them into a specific character, setting and actions. Still, Rabbai says it’s fun to incorporate current events and trends ---- a recent musical led to them doing the Ice Bucket Challenge with barbecue sauce ---- so she’s boning up on local news before their show at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.

“Sometimes there’s a reference in a song title to something that’s happening there. We can really play with that, in terms of the way that people experience humor through different places,” she says.

So, Virginians, brace yourself for “Broadway’s Next Hit Musical” about Robert and Maureen McDonnell! If you ask for it, that is.

“I don’t know if they want to see a whole musical about his wife and where [he got] his Rolex,” Rabbai says. “I suspect they want to release that idea.”