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Show cast uses audience prompts to improvise performance

Broadway’s Next H!t Musical

Last Saturday, the cast of “Broadway’s Next H!T Musical” used catchy tunes and hilarious dialogue, scenarios and costuming to fill the Wolfe Center with endless laughter—and they made it all up in a matter of seconds.

Unlike most musicals or plays one might see on a Saturday night, “Broadway’s Next H!T Musical” does not implement a set structure, dialogue or even plot. Rather, the show is made up and performed on the spot, in the form of comedy called improvised comedy, or “improv.”

According to cast member and co-producer of the show Deb Rabbai, the musical utilizes two different kinds of improv, short-form and long-form. Short-form is based on short-span scenarios often prompted by a suggestion from the audience, whereas long-form improv takes a little more depth and time to develop character and story.

“[Broadway’s Next H!T Musical] is a really nice demonstration of a marriage between these two styles,” Rabbai said.

The show first began with a phony award ceremony hosted by comedian and actor Rob Gorden. The ceremony riddled the audience with jokes tailored specifically to Bowling Green and then continued with four different songs, all of which were contending for the “phony award”—a light-hearted jab at the ever-popular Tony Awards.

All four songs, including their content, choreography and delivery were made up after one of the performers drew from a fish bowl filled with random words and phrases, written down by the audience just moments before the show. After all of the songs were performed, the cast then proceeded to do an entire show featuring the winning song, as voted on by the audience.

After watching the performance, it was only natural for audience members to question how improvised the show actually was. After all, not only were the dialogue and scenarios made up, but even the music performed by pianist Eric March was claimed to have been improvised. However, performer Annie Schiffmann made it clear that nothing was or will ever be set.

“Sometimes people think we have set melodies that we pull out of a hat and then tailor the song suggestions to the melodies we’ve pre-written, [but] that does not happen,” she said. “Everything’s completely made up, the piano player is following us and we are following him.”

Schiffmann’s point of trusting and following one another was very clear on stage. No matter what one of the performers did or what came out of the fish bowl, the others went along with it without even thinking.

But how do they do it? How do these performers not only improvise their lines, but their choreography, their music, their costumes and their well-structured plot? Since it is improvised comedy, there is no rehearsal time other than constant rhyming games, jabs at each other and often practiced skits from leftover suggestions. However, although it may seem impossible, Rabbai said it’s like any other craft: it just takes practice.

“It’s really about practice,” she said. “Like when you think about sports, basketball for instance. Those players practice the skills of dribbling, passing, shooting, running and they exercise all of those muscles, then they utilize all of those muscles in the game.”

“They just don’t know how the game’s going to play out,” Schiffmann added.

The analogy of a basketball team fits the cast rather well, as this specific showing has been in production for roughly the past five years and all cast members must act and feel like a team. However, all cast members do operate independently from time to time.

Rabbai has been acting for years, appearing in numerous works as well as performing voice-overs for video games, anime and numerous other mediums. Schiffmann has also acted for some time, performing with Chicago City Limits for over seven years. Their co-stars, Robert Grant and Rob Schiffmann, have spent a lifetime in the business as well; Grant is a significant role in a production company called The Collective and Rob Schiffman has been performing improv for over 17 years, much of which included performing with Chicago City Limits.

Although all of the stars have acted on their own, Annie Schiffman and Rabbai said improvised comedy and Broadway’s Next H!T Musical is definitely where their hearts are.

“We all do work in the industry, but this is the one thing that unites all of us,” Rabbai said. “We love doing it, it’s our passion.”

The audience seemed to love it, too. One attendee left saying she was going to tell all of her friends. Another made it a point to tell the performers he grinned so much his cheeks hurt. Even University President Mary Ellen Mazey was in attendance with a large party of University supporters.

“I thought it was excellent. I’ve always loved improv,” she said.

Mazey’s party also seemed to enjoy themselves, as she said they were still singing the songs as they came out of the doors of the Donnell Theatre.

By the end of the night, the audience was blown away by the “critically acclaimed” hits “I Love Bacon,” “World Cup Frenzy,” “Sweet and Sour,” and, of course, the phony award winner “Mammalian Protuberances” from the award-winning show “You’re Ugly.”

You just can’t make this stuff up.

See for further information about the cast and future tours.

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