In 2019, the International Thespian Society marks the 90th anniversary of its founding. As part of the celebration, we’re highlighting notable Thespian alumni. Recently, former Georgia Thespian and Educational Theatre Association board member Hunter Bell commemorated the 10th anniversary of his critically acclaimed musical [title of show] with a one-night-only reunion concert of the original cast benefiting The Actors Fund. In 2011, Bell sat down with Dramatics to talk about the show’s success and why it resonates with students. 

HUNTER BELL IS EXHAUSTED. He’s just finished the 2011 Parkinson’s Unity Walk on behalf of his mother. It’s a cold, drizzling day outside, and Bell has barely had time to change into some dry clothes and put up his sore feet when I appear at the door of his cozy Hell’s Kitchen apartment in Midtown Manhattan. I ask if this is a bad time. After he was nominated for a 2009 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for his surprise Broadway hit, [title of show], the Walt Disney Company tapped Bell, along with best friend and collaborator Jeff Bowen, to write a new musical spectacular, Villains Tonight!, for Disney Cruise Line. Bell and Bowen also spent the last year bouncing between New York City and Los Angeles, charming the bigwigs at ABC. In short, Bell is a busy man, and he could be forgiven for being a bit put out by my sudden appearance on this particular rainy Saturday. But he isn’t. He is, to borrow one of his favorite words, “awesome.”

Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell in [title of show].

Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell in [title of show]. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Sprawled out on a couch, inches away from the keyboard where he, Bowen, and two other close friends, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, teamed up to create the musical that changed their lives, Bell was as hilarious and endearing as he is onstage. During our two-hour conversation he talked openly about everything from walking the red carpet to celebrating the “little weirdo” within.

“You know. I had a subscription to Dramatics,” Bell said. “I was a full-on Georgia Thespian. I was into conference. I was a state student officer.” He nodded excitedly. “Oh yeah, I was into all that.”

His goofy enthusiasm is hardly shocking — Bell’s love of “the theatah” fuels a good portion of the first act of [title of show]. Packed with jokes about blink-and-you-missed-’em Broadway musicals (Got Tu Go Disco, anyone?), Bell and Bowen’s witty, autobiographical script is practically a love note to jazz hands. The premise of the show is simple: Two “nobodies in New York” (also named Hunter and Jeff) join forces to write, in the words of one of their songs, “a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.” The duo hatch their plan during a gossipy late-night phone chat — a moment Bell and Bowen recreate early in the show.

“Hey, what if the first scene was just us talking about what to write?” Hunter, his voice rising with excitement, asks Jeff.

“Wait, so everything I say from now on could actually be in our show?”


“Like this?”

“Like this.”

“And this?”

“And this.”

Heidi Blickenstaff, Jeff Bowen, Hunter Bell, and Susan Blackwell in [title of show]. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Is it silly? Absolutely. It is also smart, heartfelt, and deeply honest about how hard it can be to pursue a life in the theatre. With almost no set, and even fewer stars, the unlikely musical quickly won over audiences, earning rapturous reviews during its Off-Broadway and Broadway runs. Having spawned several regional and international productions, Bell is hoping to reach a new audience: high school students.

So how did a friendly, redheaded theatre geek from North Carolina and Georgia become a bona fide Broadway star? It all started with Debbie Harry and a dream.

“My aunt had a video camera, and my brother and I would write plays and music videos,” Bell said. “Thank God YouTube wasn’t around when I was little. But we thought we were awesome! Me, dancing around and singing ‘The Tide Is High’ by Blondie. I was like: ‘Who wouldn’t want to see that?’ If I’d had YouTube, I would have immediately downloaded it and thought: ‘This is going to make me a star.’ Honestly, I would have thought that it was going to make me the next Justin Bieber. I would have put one of those videos on the web in a hot second.”

By the time he was 16, Bell had moved out of the basement and onto his high school stage at Woodward Academy in Atlanta. When I asked if he’d been the big fish in a small pond, he shrugged. “I had lead roles, and then I would totally be in the ensemble. I had a lead in my sophomore year, and I was like: ‘Awesome! This is it!’” he said. “And then my junior year they did Oliver! and I was like: I’m going to be the Artful Dodger. I’ve got this,” he said, feigning smugness. “Except I was way too old. A seventh grader — an appropriately aged person — got it, and I was like: ‘Whaaaat?’” He threw his hands up in mock defeat, then sighed. “But I rocked the ensemble proudly.”

Bell’s ability to laugh at himself earned him plenty of love at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts. Kat Singleton, a professor of acting at Webster who taught Bell during his years there, spoke warmly of her former student when I reached her by phone at her home in St. Louis.

“Hunter was one of those kids in college who took the work very seriously but didn’t take himself very seriously, so he was a joy to work with,” Singleton said. “Every so often, you get students in the program who you have a special feeling about, and I really did feel like there was something special about him. Part of it was his attitude. He certainly was talented, but he was also willing to go anywhere and do anything, emotionally.”

With solid training and a few regional theatre credits under his belt, Bell seemed ready to take the Big Apple by storm. Or not.

“After graduation I moved in with my mom,” Bell said, laughing. “I needed to make some money, and I think I was a little bit afraid. So I moved back to Atlanta and worked as a singing waiter. We’d put the food down, then turn on the light over the piano and start singing from Phantom of the Opera. Oh yeah — it was ridiculous.”

But after landing a small role in The Boys From Syracuse at Atlanta’s famed Alliance Theatre, he suddenly found himself thrust into the spotlight. As Bell tells it: “I was a non-Equity whippersnapper and an actor friend of mine was the lead. He got a television pilot and left, and I got bumped up. Full-on Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. Learned the role in one day.” Bell paused, as if even he couldn’t quite believe he’d pulled off such a feat. “And that’s how I got my Equity card.”

His confidence high, Bell finally made the move to New York City. I jokingly asked if it was everything he dreamed it would be. Bell gave a small laugh. “In my head I was thinking: How am I going to juggle my Broadway show and my soap opera? But I ended up sleeping on a friend’s couch. I didn’t have an agent. I would just get up and go to open calls and wait in line.”

“Wait,” I said, interrupting his story. “You couldn’t get an agent?”

“No, I didn’t have an agent,” Bell repeated. “At the time I was living with a bunch of friends who were all on Broadway, and I was envious of them. But the interesting thing was, I was getting to do great shows in amazing regional theatres. I got to move around and meet people and do roles in shows that I would never have gotten to do in New York. And I got better. But I would always see friends waiting for a break, and I’d think, ‘My break was in Virginia Beach. My break was in Cincinnati.’ It might not have been for a lot of money, but I met people who influenced who I work with now. I met my writing partner, Jeff Bowen, at a job outside of New York City, and I never would have met him waiting tables.”

Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen in Chicago for the September 2011 Educational Theatre Association Annual Conference. Photo by Jim Talkington.

Bell and Bowen met as actors during a 1995 production of the musical Good News in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Bowen — like Bell, a fast-talking Southerner — didn’t mince words when I asked what originally sparked their friendship. “We laugh about it now, but the first time I met Hunter, I didn’t really like him,” Bowen said, when we spoke over the phone in New York City. “He came in, and he knew all his lines and had all of his singing done on the first day. So I completely judged him, like: ‘Who is this complete goody-goody?’ And then I found out that he had just done the show a month before,” Bowen chuckled. “But we became pretty good friends right away.”

Fast forward to 2004. It was the inaugural year of the New York Musical Theatre Festival (which would go on to introduce audiences to such future Broadway hits as Altar Boyz and Next to Normal.) Bell and Bowen were itching to submit, but with only three weeks until the deadline, they needed to come up with something, fast.

“We just started with a writing exercise,” Bowen recounted, when I asked what led to the original idea for [title of show]. “We went into two separate rooms and made up something stupid, and when we came back together, we both had inadvertently written something meta. I had written this song about — I think it was even titled ‘Opening Number’ — and it was this idea that we were putting on a show and it’s happening right before your eyes, and Hunter ended up writing a scene about two people trying to come up with what to write. And we sort of thought it was funny, and kept going from there. We kept just writing based on the concept of the two of us trying to write and the show just grew out of it.”

Confused? So were the judges. “We turned it in, and we got a call back going: ‘What is this?’” Bell said, laughing. “I think the judges thought that it was insane. And actually, we didn’t get in.”

Undaunted, the four cast members emailed the executive producer of the Musical Theatre Festival and asked to meet with him in person. “We felt that if he saw us we could convince him of something, maybe,” Bell said. “And he took the meeting.” It proved successful. By the end of the interview, [title of show] was not only in the festival, it was offered a six-night run.

Still, it wasn’t exactly the stuff of dreams. The performance space, housed in a former belt factory, was so awkwardly configured that several shows refused to perform there. “We called it the Mexican cockfighting ring,” Bell recalled, grinning. “But we were like kids in a candy store!” The cast’s enthusiasm paid off. “It was a Tuesday afternoon performance, and there were 12 people in the audience, and it was like raining outside, and all these other shows were hits, and we were in the Mexican cockfighting ring doing our little show and we were like: ‘Let’s rock this.’ And sure enough The New York Times was there and put a little blurb about it, and that helped get a little attention.”

The cast’s passion also caught the eye of Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (RentAvenue Q). McCollum understood that [title of show] was about more than just a series of snarky asides. “What I loved about Kevin is that he was smart, and he got what we were trying to say and we connected, and he took an option on it. Under his auspices, we just kept working on it. It was amazing to me to learn, like, how you think a Broadway show happens — the fantasy has nothing to do with the reality.”

“So, what was the fantasy?” I asked.

“The fantasy is I’m sitting on my couch watching Real Housewives and someone’s going to knock on the door and discover me,” replied Bell. “Or the phone rings, and it’s easy and you go from there. And that would not be the case,” he said, giving a curt laugh.

“What they’re selling in magazines or on E! — that’s the fantasy part of it. And I get it. Nobody wants to read how hard it is. Nobody prints a picture of you at your desk with crumpled-up paper or coffee cups at 4 a.m. pulling your hair out. But part of what [title of show] was about is exposing the process. I mean those American Idol kids are working their asses off!” Bell said, jabbing his finger at the television. “We see them one night, but they’re constantly in rehearsal. I think it’s healthy to debunk the myth that becoming famous is easy, and to let people know that there’s an enormous amount of work and persistence and blood and sweat and tears. By the time we got to Broadway and walked red carpets and did interviews and had fancy stuff happen to us, I was like: ‘Awesome. Yeah, I’ll take this.’ Because the four of us worked for it.” Bell flashed a smile. “We always joke that Cinderella worked her butt off to get to that ball.”

The work has definitely paid off. Bell and Bowen, along with musical director Michael Berresse, all won Obie Awards for the Off-Broadway production — and, in 2009, Bell was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. The recognition was bittersweet: Of the four cast members, Bell was the only one nominated for an award.

“It was such a mixed bag of emotions,” Bell said, his voice trailing off. “I thought Jeff’s score was amazing. It was hard to separate it. I wanted everyone to be nominated. I really did. So, I was elated at this fantasy, and so honored and excited, but I was bummed that I didn’t get to take the ride with my best friends. You know the limo’s more fun with your friends. But Jeff and I went that night, and it was fun and surreal and circus-y.”

And had he prepared a speech, just in case?

“It’s funny, the most crazy time, the time when my stomach leapt out of itself, was when — okay, they seat you,” Bell recalled, growing animated. “Then the camera man comes over and kneels in front of you when they say your name. And there was 30 seconds where I was like: ‘What if they call my name?’ My heart was really pounding. And then they called out Billy Elliot and I was like: ‘Okay, it’s done.’” Bell slumped over dramatically, then let out a loud laugh. “But I was super proud because when they announced our show at the awards, we got a lot of claps. I was so grateful. I think the Broadway community really had an affection for what we were doing.”

Broadway wasn’t the only community that loved [title of show]. Teens also responded to the show’s themes of friendship and self-acceptance, and began spreading the word on Facebook. “We had all these 15- and 16-year-old kids who really liked us,” Bowen said when I brought up the show’s Glee-like following. “But what sucked is that we knew they’d never get to do their own productions because of the language and some of the slightly sexual subject matter. It annoyed us to death because the show was not about those things — it was about friendship. What kids were taking away from the show were the friendships, and the feeling of outcastness, and of wanting to break through to what it is you want to do. I think those themes are so powerful to kids, because when you’re a senior in high school or college, you’re right on the edge of diving into the next chapter of your life. And kids are terrified! They want to believe that they can jump into the next pool, and it’s going to be awesome, and I think our show showed them that. We wanted kids to be able to have that experience in their own way.”

So Bell and Bowen set to work, retooling the show for high school audiences. Aside from the removal of a few adult references and F-bombs, the musical has remained largely intact.

“For a long time, we were like: ‘Do we do a version where they play high schoolers trying to get into a Thespian conference?’” Bell recalled. “But Jeff and I came to the conclusion that when we were in high school, if we wanted to do a version of Guys and Dolls or Into the Woods, I want to do Guys and Dolls or Into the Woods! I want to do that Broadway show. I want to have that experience.” With only four characters in the original, I wanted to know if the new version included a 500-person chorus. Hunter let out a loud laugh.

“I hope people get creative with it. I mean, I understand that in high school there’s the big spring musical, but what do you do with those Island of Misfit Toy like we were, who are creative and interesting and want to do something? That’s what I love about [title of show] — you can be anything! You can be any size, shape, color. I’m interested in creating a vehicle for those awesome little weirdos, who don’t get cast in the big musical. Maybe their teacher will take a chance and set up four chairs in the music room. We want kids to have the experience that we had, to make their own YouTube videos, to make their own community. I’m excited. Jeff and I think it’ll be some of our favorite versions of the show.”

Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, and Jeff Bowen dropped in on the Centerville (Ohio) High School cast before their 2013 International Thespian Festival performance
Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, and Jeff Bowen dropped in on the Centerville (Ohio) High School cast before their 2013 International Thespian Festival performance of [title of show]. Photo by Don Corathers.

The [title of show] gang isn’t finished yet. Last June, the four original cast members, plus pianist-musical director Larry Pressgrove and director Michael Berresse, presented their latest collaboration, Now. Here. This., as a development lab production at the prestigious Vineyard Theatre. Bell, who described the experience as a “theatri-concert,” emphasized that the musical is not a sequel. “It’s not a continuation of [title of show], aside from it being the same group of performers. It’s kind of direct-address storytelling, part Spaulding Gray, part Mike Berbiglia, with some original music by Jeff.” There is talk of remounting the show, but Bell seems content to take things as they come.

“A big drum we’re banging right now,” Bell said, smiling, “is that the thing that makes you feel different or weird or that you’re scared of, if you can move through it, will be the thing that opens up your life.”

This story appeared in the November 2011 print issue of DramaticsSubscribe today to our print magazine.

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