by MAUREEN LEE LENKER
[dropcap]Spies[/dropcap] are Forever, now playing at the NoHo Arts Center, takes James Bond and the world of espionage as ingredients for a molotov cocktail of parody and hilarity. The musical marks the first full-length show from the sketch comedy team, the Tin Can Brothers — Brian Rosenthal, Joey Richter, and Corey Lubowich. Rosenthal and Richter feature prominently in the cast, while Lubowich directed, and all three wrote the book.
The trio formed their sketch group “out of necessity to create things,” Richter says. They met attending the University of Michigan before moving to Los Angeles (and into the same apartment building), where they started filming their sketches and posting them online. Over the last two and a half years, they have produced over 100 YouTube videos and staged two live sketch shows. Lubowich notes that the success of the live shows (both sold out) led them to consider a full-length production which, he says, was always in the back of their minds.
It might seem odd for a sketch comedy team to mount a two-hour musical, but the three share roots in musical comedy as members of StarKid, the creative coalition responsible for the viral hit A Very Potter Musical. They started with a clear structure and plot points, which freed them to play with the comedy in each scene. “When you end up looking at each scene, you end up looking at in a way like it’s its own personal sketch,” Richter says.
With StarKid, the trio — particularly actors Richter and Rosenthal — have built themselves a devoted online fan base. Last fall, they launched a Kickstarter for Spies are Forever, which quickly helped raise necessary funding. They are both gratified and a bit mystified by their internet fame. “It’s a bit of a safety net in that it’s a group of people who are dedicated to liking everything you do. It’s nice. It’s weird,” says Rosenthal. Richter notes that their base does not necessarily dictate the work, “but it does help you trust your instincts a little bit more.”
The production features many of their friends, including Glee’s Curt Mega and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ Mary Kate Wiles, as well as fellow StarKid members Lauren Lopez and Joseph Walker. Richter revels in the freedom it creates in the working environment. “Everyone has this shorthand with each other, where we really know how to work with each other, and I think no one’s afraid to bring up ideas, or bring up issues, voice their opinions, or do something stupid in front of everyone,” he says, “That being said, I think sometimes you run the risk of going too far in that direction where it gets too comfortable, and then you have to rein things in.”
Still, the biggest challenge wasn’t writing a full-length narrative or balancing friendship with professional collaboration, but switching mediums from screen to stage. Richter explains, “This show is very cinematic because [we were] thinking about spy movies.”
“The stage directions in the script are ridiculous and impossible,” adds Rosenthal.
After being a part of original musicals that lovingly parodied Harry Potter and superheroes, a musical dedicated to the spy genre seems a natural progression. “It’s two-fold,” Rosenthal explains, “The first being we can’t think of another spy musical… [but] on the most base level, it’s just… spies are cool.”
When you think of James Bond (particularly the most recent film incarnations), laugh-out-loud comedy may not come to mind, but the team is quick to point out their desire to play with a sense of humor inherent to the franchise — they cite the quippy side of the Bond character, who’s “a little wacky,” as the gentleman spy they were trying to land in this production.
The team was also drawn to the material’s ability to address contemporary concerns. The production is set in the Cold War, but it riffs on current conversations about privacy and technology that mirrors contemporary conversations — “something that’s in the zeitgeist,” says Richter.
They had already finished a first draft when they went to see the latest Bond film Spectre, and they were startled to find it bore many similarities to their script. “We looked at each other and were going, They stole our story!” says Rosenthal. But they claim this also helped them know their instincts were on track, as well as encouraged them to edit down some of the parallel messages Spectre plumbs so thoroughly.
The music and lyrics are supplied by the Brooklyn-based duo, TalkFine — made up of Clark Baxtresser and Pierce Siebers. Baxtresser also went to the University of Michigan, and he and Siebers have known each other since middle school. They had written a few short songs for Tin Can Brothers sketches, but were excited to come onboard for a more heavy-duty project.
Baxtresser and Siebers initially worked off an outline that included potential song placements and temporary titles, many of which they kept. From there, they would write music and tweak songs as characters and scenes were refined.
“During the writing process, the most exciting thing was receiving a song from them, just because that’s not in our wheelhouse,” says Rosenthal.
The music and lyrics veer from classic musical fodder, including some Sound of Music riffs, to the unmistakable hallmarks of Bond songs. Baxtresser confesses that, before they wrote a single note, they listened to every James Bond theme song — in order. The effort that went into the research is clear; the production’s title piece, “Spies are Forever,” is reminiscent of “Skyfall,” “Writing’s on the Wall,” and “Goldfinger” all at once — as if you took every Bond song ever written and put it in a cocktail shaker.
Baxtresser and Siebers have dotted the show with musical tropes, celebrating them and turning them on their head — from the romantic duet “Doing This” to the bossa nova “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” — in which an arms dealer cha-chas his way through an explanation of his chosen profession. “I love this show because it has this big magnificent opening, and it’s almost Gothic. And then the second number is this “want” song that belongs in a drama, and then it’s this light-hearted goofball song, so… you don’t know what to expect,” says Siebers.
The script abounds with parodies and references to Bond and the spy genre, but it also toys with the conventions of the musical form. “It’s not just a single layer of parody,” says Rosenthal, “When I see something that’s just a single layer of parody, it makes me wince a little because it’s so close to the source material. For me, as layered and on its head as you can get, the funnier it is.”
Indeed, producing a full-length musical parody from conception to opening night in five months might just make this team the Bond, Moneypenny, Q, and M of the musical theatre world — only they’ve got a license to make you laugh.
NOW PLAYING: SPIES ARE FOREVER at the NoHo Arts Center, through April 3.
In Spies are Forever, Agent Curt Mega finds himself thrust into the shadows of Cold War politics as he works to foil a plot to rebuild the Nazi empire. Along the way, Agent Mega must tango with a Russian femme fatale, waltz around a black market arms dealer, and samba through a horde of outrageous characters. With a license to kill and the voice of an angel, Mega must stay alive, complete the mission, and prove to his enemies that the deadliest weapon of all is a little song and dance.