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‘Blank’ draws on Broadway musicals for improv

From left: T. J. Shanoff, Mike Descoteaux, and Michael Girts of “Blank! The Musical.”
From left: T. J. Shanoff, Mike Descoteaux, and Michael Girts of “Blank! The Musical.”Joe Trentacosta

The Huntington and the ART aren’t the only Boston theater companies reaching toward New York.

ImprovBoston — which is actually in Cambridge — has been named “producing improvisation partner” for “Blank! The Musical,” beginning performances Nov. 1 at New World Stages just off Times Square in Manhattan.

What does that mean? ImprovBoston artistic director Mike Descoteaux is a co-creator of the show and will serve as musical director. And several performers from a recent Boston audition made the second round of auditions last weekend in New York.

The “Blank! The Musical” cast will create a completely improvised musical at each performance, drawn from audience suggestions. “The audience is way crazier than we could ever be,” Descoteaux says.


Descoteaux, his former Second City colleague Michael Girts, and veteran Chicago director T.J. Shanoff created an improvise-a-musical show in fall 2012 for a one-week New York run, under the title “One Night Only.” It has since played several short runs in Chicago.

At each performance, a host greets the audience and solicits suggestions for a show title and a few song titles, and asks them to choose four letters between A and G, representing the notes that will form the show’s signature melody. Then performers zing right into an overture that sows the seeds of plot and songs. It’s a high-wire act, the melodic aspect adding another degree of difficulty to the improv challenge.

Producer Matt Britten saw “One Night Only” in New York and liked it: “It really got to the heart of musical theater.” Now, with “Blank! The Musical,” he’s adding technology so that audience participation won’t be limited to the handful of folks whose shouted suggestions get picked up. Using an in-house Wi-Fi signal and a Web app, everyone will be able to use their phones to vote for their choices. “Everyone will be involved in the creation of the show,” he says.


Descoteaux will be at the keyboard as the musical director, accompanied by two other musicians. The Boston performers are vying for 10 to 12 cast spots with performers from the Chicago version as well as with performers who survived an open call in New York last week. The cast and design team will be announced soon.

Flipping through a notebook, Descoteaux finds a recent example of how audience suggestions define each show. The Chicago performance, called “Succeed or Burn,” was about a coven of witches and featured songs such as “Awkward New Year,” the love ballad “Heart Fire of the Heart,” and “Today! Williamsburg.”

“Somehow we’re going to have to shape the show around those titles, and not only get them into the show, but make sure they’re at the heart of the show,” he says. “So there’s no audience member that walks away going, ‘Oh, they do the same show every time and just slip in the lyrics that we gave them.’ Everything about the show revolves around the information the audience gives us.”

There was also the night they performed a show called “My Newest Rash,” but the less said about that the better.

Creating a 60- to 75-minute or even longer show requires both fleet improvisation and knowledge of the real thing, from Kander and Ebb to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Descoteaux says. “We are diving into musicals, taking them apart, analyzing them for how they work, what are the tropes of Broadway? What are the songs we might see, what are the story lines, what are the dances? [We are] absorbing every vocabulary, device, trick that you possibly can. And then you’ve got this toolbox full of musical theater tropes and clichés that you can pull out.”


Rehearsal begins the first week of October. And how exactly do you rehearse for an improvised musical? “I always compare it to how a basketball team practices,” he says. “You run certain drills, you run certain maneuvers, you flex certain muscles . . . and you learn how to play better as a team, how to communicate on the court.”

What don’t they do? Parodies of songs from existing shows. “We believe performing a song in the style of Sondheim returns a better connection with the audience than doing ‘Send in the Clowns’ and changing the lyrics,” Descoteaux says. That “cheapens what we’re trying to do a little bit, and it’s much more limiting for the actors, it’s actually much harder to do.”

Britten signed up ImprovBoston and New York’s famed Upright Citizens Brigade as partner troupes in hopes they’ll feed in talented cast and creative input. The auditions last weekend were held at the New York troupe’s venue.

Will “Blank!” come to Boston? “That’s certainly in the cards,” Descoteaux said. “Boston would have special access — specifically ImprovBoston — to any touring production that might come out of the off-Broadway production.”

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.