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From Stetson to Broadway

Jeff Bowen was seated in Stetson’s Second Stage Theatre last week, watching a dress rehearsal of his play, “[title of show],” when a memory returned in a flash from his days in college here.

Bowen, who graduated with a Communication and Theatre Arts degree in 1993, wrote the music and lyrics for the show now being performed by the Theatre Arts program.

He starred in the show on Broadway, sharing the stage with writer Hunter Bell and playing himself in a musical comedy about two nobodies in New York writing a musical comedy. The show won an Obie Award and was nominated for a Tony Award.

Seated in the darkened theater last week, Bowen had a sudden realization: An instrumental section in the second half of the show was actually written during his time at Stetson.

[title of show] creators meet the cast and crew Feb. 11, 2019, in the Stetson Theatre Arts’ Second Stage Theatre. Standing, left to right, are Julie Schmitt, director; Jaycie Cohen, assistant director; Gordon Silva, assistant sound designer; Kevin Reynolds, sound designer; Joseph Dallas, “Hunter;” Austin McElwain, music director; Hunter Bell, co-creator and book writer; Reed Barkowitz, “Susan;” Shanellie Figueroa, “Heidi;” Jeff Bowen, alumnus and composer/lyricist; Daniel Mejia, “Jeff;” and Drake Cunningham, stage manager. Kneeling, left to right, are Toni-Ann Muthra, wardrobe supervisor; Dakota Stitsinger, properties designer; Anie Wojcik, assistant stage manager; Caitlyn Carey, “Heidi;” and Liza Tananbaum, “Susan.”

“When I was watching the show I realized, oh, my gosh, I wrote that musical phrase at Stetson. I actually wrote that in Presser Hall in one of those third-floor practice rooms, just playing around with a little melody,” he said. “Who knew that would end up in a Broadway show that would then make its way back to campus.”

For Bowen, a New York composer, lyricist and actor, it felt like life coming full circle.

“I wrote this down the street like 25 years ago and found it kind of funny because it was never my intent certainly,” he said, pausing and then launching into a dramatic stage voice. “Or maybe I had some sort of great foresight that this would make its way back across the street of Woodland Boulevard to find me.”

He laughed so hard that he could barely finish his sentence. “I thought it was really funny. Oh, wow, so that’s how the world works,” he added.

Countless Hours in Presser Hall

Bowen has enjoyed quite a ride since he graduated from Stetson and moved to New York City in the summer of 1993. The son of a postal worker and a registered nurse in Fort Myers, he attended Stetson because his older brother, Bill, was a student here, graduating a year ahead of him with a degree in English.

A group shot of the six of them backstage in NYC
Opening night for [title of show] on Broadway, July 17, 2008: Jeff Bowen, third from right, is shown at Lyceum Theatre in New York City with, from left, Michael Berresse, director, choreographer and now Bowen’s husband; fellow actors Susan Blackwell, co-creator Hunter Bell, Heidi Blickenstaff and pianist Larry Pressgrove. (Getty Images)

Jeff Bowen describes himself as a class clown growing up and said he fell in love with theater in the eighth grade, thanks to his “really cool” drama teacher.

“I felt like when we were doing drama things – monologues or readings – I liked it. It felt sophisticated,” he recalled. “I liked the joy it brought me and I liked how much fun I had doing it. Now whether or not that meant I was aggressively going to pursue it for the rest of my life, I’m not sure, but I knew that it gave me joy and I knew I enjoyed being around the people who did it.”

He arrived at Stetson the summer before his freshman year for orientation and learned the university had a School of Music, which then was offering a degree in Musical Theater. Bowen sang “Stars” from Les Misérables for an audition and was accepted into the program.

He took voice lessons from Music Professor Jane Christeson and from Bob Rich, Ph.D., now-retired. Bowen had grown up around music, jamming on the keyboards, piano and organ with his father, who played guitar in rock ‘n roll bands in his spare time. But surprisingly, Bowen never took a class at Stetson in piano, organ or keyboards.

“I didn’t focus on it in college, although I did play a lot in college,” he said. “I can’t even tell you how many hours I spent just sort of messing around in the practice rooms on the third floor of Presser Hall. But I never had to play piano in front of anyone or any professor or for any grade. So I just sort of kept it as a private, personal, fun thing.”

“The Sociology at Stetson”

At the end of his sophomore year, a new professor was hired to head Stetson’s theatre department. Kenneth Stilson, Ph.D., brought new energy and talked of performing edgier shows. Bowen switched his major to theater, but kept a minor in music, continuing voice lessons with Professor Christeson.

Jane Christeson

Christeson recalled her former student “was intensely interested in music theater” and “had a lovely tenor voice.” Years later, she was surprised to learn he’d written a Broadway show.

“I was very surprised to find out about the success of his show – not because he wasn’t talented enough to do anything in music – but because I didn’t know he had any interest in composing!” she said. “For me, that came out of the blue. When I found out, I instantly ordered a score and read through it when it arrived. Needless to say, I was very impressed and very gratified to know he was working at that level.”

For Bowen, majoring in theater and taking voice lessons in the School of Music allowed him to experience the best of both worlds, and he mingled with students in both programs.

“I did that for myself and I kind of just made the choice to throw myself in a bunch of directions because I don’t know whether I just had a short attention span or I wanted to break up the tedium, but I just loved that I had two years of an intensive music program and also two years of theatre,” he said.

During his junior year, he landed a leading role in “The Diviners,” a play about an emotionally disturbed boy and an older friend who tries to liberate him from his fears. The 1992 Hatter yearbook contains a photo of him onstage during this production.

He also belonged to the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, was a cheerleader for a year, and stayed busy in campus activities. He credits his time at Stetson with teaching him how to interact well with a wide range of people.

“The sociology at Stetson was very diverse and really new, and if anything, the thing that it prepared me for was just how many different kinds of people there are in the world, how many different kinds of opinions there are that people have in the world and the different ways in which people live their lives,” he said.

“I made the most of being involved in as much as I could that was very different. I was being a cheerleader for the basketball team, I mean, what was I doing that for? Who knows. It was just, like, something else to do that felt fun. I feel like Stetson offered the opportunity to dip a toe into all kinds of different pools and I like that.”

“Just Part of the Ride”

He moved to New York City a few months after graduation and began landing roles in theatre productions off-Broadway, in national touring companies and in summer theatre. After a few years, he branched out to learn more about the business side of theatre, working for a talent agency and then for a web developer that designed websites for Broadway shows.

It wasn’t long before he opened his own business as a website designer. And this is where “[title of show]” opens on stage. He and Hunter Bell, two friends and collaborators, are talking on the phone as he sits working on his laptop.

Bell mentions a New York musical theatre festival is looking for submissions. Should they enter something? But the deadline is three weeks away. And from this actual conversation in 2004 comes the harebrained idea – or is it an award-winning idea – to write “a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.”

They added two female friends, Susan and Heidi, to the mix and decided to use the title from the festival entry form. It was an unlikely story to make it to Broadway, The New York Times said in its review, describing it as a  “peculiar and quite adorable musical” that is “far funnier than many of the more expensively manufactured musicals that make it to Broadway these days.”

The four actors played themselves in the show off-Broadway and then on Broadway, where they starred in more than 100 performances from July to October 2008.

They have remained close friends and continue to work on creative projects together. The show’s director and choreographer, Michael Berresse, is now Bowen’s husband. The four actors credit Berresse with seeing the possibilities in their “silly lark” and encouraging them to explore deeper themes of friendship, compromise, art and what it means to sell out, Bowen said.

The four are singing on a NY stage.
Heidi Blickenstaff, Jeff Bowen, Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell on stage at the Vineyard Theatre 2017 Gala at the Edison Ballroom on March 14, 2017, in New York City. (Getty Images)

“I was not raised to believe that money or accolades measured success,” Bowen explained. “I was always told to be happy because that’s invaluable. I’m a gajillionaire when it comes to happiness because I’m surrounded by people I love and people who support me and people I like to support back and that’s why I feel super successful. …

“Maybe Broadway came as a result of that, I don’t know. I was already the happiest person in the world before Broadway, so I don’t think that did. That was just part of the ride,” he said.

“An Incredible Experience” 

Last October, Stetson’s Director of Theatre Arts, Julia Schmitt, Ph.D., contacted Bowen by email and let him know his alma mater planned to perform the show. Bowen said he would be happy to visit and brought along his co-creator to the rehearsal in DeLand on Monday night, Feb. 11.

Three actors react as Jeff gives his idea.
Musical writer Jeff is inspired to call their new original musical, [title of show], while fellow cast members Susan, Heidi and Hunter express their doubts. The play is being performed by Stetson’s Second Stage Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 24. From left to right: Danny Mejia, Caroline Barkowitz, Shanellie Figueroa and Joseph Dallas. Photos by Ken McCoy.

Danny Mejía ‘19, president of the Student Government Association and a Health Science major, plays the role of Jeff in the Stetson production, which continues through Sunday, Feb. 24.

“I’ve performed in many different productions and I’ve had experiences that have been amazing on campus, but this one takes the cake,” Mejía said. “It really is incredible to perform to someone who interpreted my role and who also created my role, and to have that person sit out in the audience and watch, it’s an incredible experience.”

After creating [title of show], cast members pose for an awkward photo shoot in the musical comedy presented by Stetson’s Second Stage Theatre. From left to right: Danny Mejia, Liza Tananbaum, Caitlyn Carey and Joseph Dallas.

Bowen and Bell hung around after the show to meet the cast and crew. The students traded stories with Bowen about Stetson campus life and learned acting tips from the men.

“It isn’t every day you get to meet the actual characters of the show you’re in,” said Liza Tananbaum, who plays Susan in the production. “Hunter told us that before every show all four of them would always circle up and think of a word, like enjoyment, and let that fill you and resonate through your performance. It was so simple, but I think that it will live with me for the rest of my time acting.” 

Julia Schmitt

Added Schmitt, Theatre Arts director, “‘[title of show]’ is a perfect fit for our theatre and cast. It has been an absolute pleasure directing this gem of a musical, and I’m so glad that our students were able to create such an amazing memory. It is a real rarity to get to perform for the authors of published works and an even greater rarity to make a personal connection like the cast did with Jeff and Hunter. I’m sure that night will live them for the rest of their lives.”

The visit was special for Bowen, too. He and Bell have been collaborating for 20 years, yet, it was Bell’s first visit to campus. Bowen, who now serves on the Stetson School of Music Advisory Board, especially enjoyed showing Bell around Presser Hall.

Jeff Bowen

“In a lot of ways when I go back to Stetson and I’m breathing that rainy Florida air and that humid sort of mossy, sunny thing that only exists in this little microcosm in the middle of Central Florida, it’s so evocative because it’s where I started to be an adult and it’s like a womb, it’s like a birthplace,” Bowen reflected.

“I’m always so surprised at the wave of ghosts that come back to me. Oh, the memories that just flash through, and hours and hours and hours I’ve spent on those lawns, in those buildings, taking naps in the most random places. It’s so much a part of that incubation process. … I really had a great adventure there.”

Cory Lancaster

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