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Broadway Bullet Interview: Idol the Musical

Many "American Idol" alumni have recently performed on Broadway, but now the show has inspired a musical of its own. This week we talk to Idol the Musical's producer Todd Ellis, composer/lyricist/performer Jon Balcourt, and performers Babs Rubenstein, Jennie Riverso, Courtney Ellis, and Roy George. We also hear two songs from the show, "Prima Donna Fabulous" and "Simon Says". Based on the "American Idol" fanbase, the musical is a satire of the worship of recent "Idol" runner-up, Clay Aiken. It takes place in a small town in Ohio, where a group of quirky high school students who belong to a club in which they worship a shrine to Clay are getting ready for their graduation. Recently produced in Syracuse, the show is now running Off Broadway at the 45th Street Theater, and began previews July 5th.

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You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet Volume 120. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

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Broadway Bullet Interview: Idol the Musical


BROADWAY BULLET: Well, even the news can't go many days without reporting on "American Idol," so it seemed inevitable that we were going to see a musical emerge around the sensation. And we do have Idol the Musical . We've got Todd Ellis, who is the producer, and we've got Jon Balcourt, who is the composer – he did the music and the lyrics – and he performs in the show. How are you guys doing?

Jon Balcourt: Great, how are you doing?

TODD ELLIS: Great.

BB: So, you guys came down here from Syracuse with the show, right?

TE: Basically. Yeah, we started the show in Syracuse. As the producer, I'm also the -- I have the original concept for the show. And Jon is from Syracuse. Bill Boland, who is the writer, is also from Syracuse, so after I came up with the concept, I hired these guys, put it in their hands, and they've given us an amazing musical.

BB. All right, so, the concept sounds -- I've got to say, a little strange!

TE: A group of students -- yeah, it's a group of students from Stubeubenville, Ohio, who worship and have built a shrine to Clay Aiken. Basically, it looks at how we worship idols in our society, and the lengths we'll go to to worship them. I mean, it goes back to Elvis. It goes back to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead. Society has always worshipped those pop idols, and [the musical's] taking a look at that in a very funny, musical-comedy, parody way.

BB: Bye, Bye, Birdie. So, yeah, that brings a few things to mind. That answers half of the question, but let's delve a little further. Let's address the obvious: I think a lot of people out there think this sounds kind of silly. So, it probably is a little silly --

TE: Sometimes, you have to go through the silly to really get to the depth of the story, because if you look at our society -- and this show was written actually with social commentary among it -- to really look at the growth of these characters, how much they feel they have to relate to an idol to exist, rather than being able to exist on their own volition. And through the process of the play, we see their growth, and their realization that they can survive in society with or without  idols.

BB: And, Jon, so, what was your process with the writing? Were you in tune right away with the whole theme, or did you have to --

JB: It was a bit of a rough start. We had a couple song title ideas, topics thrown around. About three of them that we had in the original pool of titles stuck with us until the end of the show, and then, once Bill came on board, we sort of veered off into a different direction than we had begun, and we have the show that we have now.

TE: The three titles that exist are "Burnin' Hunk of Clay," "Simon Says," and "Quakin' for Aiken." Another title, which started out "Size Thirteen Shoes," became the title "Chip and Dale Days," which is about the basketball player who wants to be a dancer -- who has size thirteen shoes, obviously.

BB: Well, now, I also understand that the performers came from Syracuse with you.

TE: Yeah, they're very talented. The performers have a ton of credits in Syracuse. They're very talented performers. They'll be performing Idol the Musical here until the 29th of July. A cast that we now have in rehearsal will take over the performances on August 1st. One of the cast members from Syracuse, Joe Walker, who's playing the role of J.D., will stay with that cast. This original cast signed on from July 5th – 29th.

BB: And we've actually got a couple of them in here to sing some numbers, and Jon, you're going to play with them, right?

JB: Yup.

BB: So, why don't we hear the first one first? Do you want to introduce the singer, and set the song up?

JB: Yes, this is Babs Rubenstein, singing "Prima Donna Fabulous." She plays the character of Adrienne, who basically tries to foil all of the efforts of the rest of the cast and take all. 

Listen to a performance of "Prima Donna Fabulous" in Broadway Bullet Volume 120.

BB: So what else have you been hiding in Syracuse?

TE: Syracuse is a very talented town. If you go back to the early 1900s, 1910, there were actually twelve to fourteen major performing arts centers. The old theaters, the old vaudeville theaters in Syracuse, of which unfortunately only one now still exists, The Landmark Theater -- but the Shuberts actually produced in Syracuse back in the early days and very, very early days of Broadway, a few shows were born there. And now, ninety years later, we decided to birth another show to bring to New York City.

BB: Now, Jon, do you find it -- I have written shows in the past, I used to act – never again – I've always found it very distracting, being in a show that I was writing, and I'm wondering how you're dealing with that, and why you're actually taking that on.

JB: I don't find it distracting. I think it's kind of comforting to be a part of it. I can relate to my character extremely well, so playing him in the show is not --

BB: And you play piano at the same time.

JB: Yeah.

BB: What is this character that allows you to play your own compositions?

JB: His name is Connor, he is a home-schooled nerd for most of the show. I'm not saying I'm a nerd, though!

BB: That's okay, I will! (laughter)

TE: We all are!

JB: I guess so! He is a musician, so that part of the role is very natural to me. He plays piano throughout the show a couple of times, two numbers specifically: "Prima Donna Fabulous," which we just heard, and near the end of the show, a song called, "Family of Misfits." He plays live on stage.

BB: So have you performed in New York before this?

JB: I actually have been performing more in pit orchestra for shows, as of late, but prior to that, I hadn't really been on stage since 8th grade. So this is quite a change.

BB: Trial by fire. (laughter)

 JB: Yeah!

BB: One thing that always pleases me -- it does please me when I see an Off Broadway musical open for an extended run, or at least – I assume, this isn't a --

TE: We have nine weeks of the run, we're in the 45th Street Theater, which is a 99-seat house, whatever the official designation of that is, I don't know.

BB: But, now, are you shooting for this to be an open run, or are you --

TE: We are absolutely shooting for this to be an open run. Right now, we're booked in the 45th Street Theater through September 2nd. We are on a daily basis looking at plans to move this into a larger venue after that nine-week run.

BB: So, what is it about -- everybody, all the producers I talk to, say that the challenges of producing Off Broadway are -- there's not much financial reward there. Are you finding that the same way, or are you actually thinking that there's a model that can work for you guys?

TE: It depends. We look at this Idol the Musical as an investment. Whether we break even, whether we make a lot of money in the Off Broadway run, was not even really calculated into the formula. It's an excellent show. I'm a producer in Syracuse. I've produced over a hundred shows there; I'm also currently producing High School Musical in Syracuse, which has an August run, so I've kind of diversified, and was able to bring this into that whole package, as I was producing, to know that I have a guaranteed income while supporting this. But we're starting to have great crowds, we know that with the 99-seat theater, we're looking for most of our August production to be sold out or close to sold out, so, it'll be a great investment, and we think we'll do great with this.

BB: Now, I understand that this is kind of drawing a family audience, and marketing a musical as a "family musical," we all know means strictly for kids, but it turns out that this is a musical that is for the family.

TE: It's a musical that can be seen by anyone, age ten to eighty-eight. The great thing about this is that anyone who can relate to any character in society -- if you watch "Doctor 90210," if you watch "Build Your Own House," if you watch any of these shows, any reality T.V., you can relate to this show, because each of the nine characters is kind of like everyman.

BB: I watch no reality television. Except for "Myth Busters."

TE: But, you know, anyone in society who wants to move beyond the life they currently have will relate to this show, because it's about -- one of the songs, "Fifteen Minutes," they're all looking for their fifteen minutes of fame. And anyone out there who has that, I mean, everyone who lines up for "Idol" when they go to many different cities, has that wish to be, to have that one chance at fifteen minutes for fame. And that really hits to the soul of many people that want to move beyond the town they're living in, or want to move from this job to the next. There's always that hope. It's a show about hope.

BB: Now, I bet you have the concept for the show, and I can tell you just sat back quietly or the rest of the --

TE: Jon can comment on that! (laughter)

JB: Oh, yeah.

TE: Well, you know, we have a great team. Jon, as the composer-lyricist and actor, Bill as the writer–lyricist, Dan Tursi as the director, and myself as the producer, and the original concept called Bipolar Productions -- it's a new production company we have formed for this project and many more that we already have in the mind process, as well as, I think, some things are even starting to get on paper at this point. We're looking at a long-term thing here, because the four of us work great together, no ego associated within each of our parts, we're very willing to listen to each other.

BB: All right, well let's hear one more song before we wrap up. I know you've got a couple of other people here ready to perform.

TE: Absolutely! This is Roy George, Jennie Riverso, and Courtney Ellis singing "Simon Says." This is-- they're basically -- everything seems to have broken down around them. They wanted this shot, and it's been taken away from them, and this song expresses their anger with that, and with society, and with everyone who always tries to put you down when you're trying for your fifteen minutes of fame.

Listen to a performance of "Simon Says" in Broadway Bullet Volume 120.

BB: Okay, fantastic! We have a whole crew here today. (laughter) So, give everybody all of the essential information: where to go, how do they get tickets...

TE: 45th Street Theater, that's located between 8th and 9th Avenues, right down from all of those great shows that are showing. They can go to www.smarttix.com, or there are some seats still available if they walk up Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3:15 and 8:15, and Thursdays and Fridays at 8:15. It's an amazing show, tons of laughs throughout the show. "Burnin' Hunk of Clay," that is the song. I mean, they are rolling to that song. Basically, "Burnin' Hunk of Clay," one of the characters has sculpted a clay bust of Clay, and sings her love song to that.

BB: (laughs) All right, well, nutty, silly, and definitely current and timely. I thank you guys so much for coming down and talking with us, and bringing the crew down to perform the songs. It was a blast having you here.

JB: Beautiful 

TE: Thank you so much.

BB: Thanks.

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You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on  Broadway Bullet Volume 120. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

 or MP3 Feed with XML

Photos by Carol Rosegg


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