By ERIC SCHELKOPF
It's one thing to stage a musical. It's quite another thing to create a new musical every night.
That's exactly what the cast of "One Night Only" is doing. Audiences are treated to a improvised musical each night based on their own suggestions.
"One Night Only" opened on Dec. 17 and will continue through Dec. 28 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Showtimes are at 8 p.m., and tickets are $15, available by calling 773-327-5252 or at www.onenightonlynyc.com.
I had the chance to talk to "One Night Only" producer and creator Michael Girts about the production.
Q - Great talking to you. How have your openings days gone?
Our first two shows were fantastic! Our audiences gave us some really fun suggestions, and the cast hit it out of the park.
On Tuesday, they improvised "DON'T KILL THE CAT: THE MUSICAL," which told the story of an army of cats invading a city where everyone is allergic to cats.
And last night, our suggestion was "RIGHT PLACE, WRONG TIME: THE MUSICAL" – which told three intersecting love stories. It also featured singing-and-dancing cuckoo clocks. Last night's show was one of my favorite musicals yet.
It makes me sad that we'll never see either of these musicals again... but that's why we call it One Night Only.
Q - Have you been getting good suggestions from the audiences? Will you act upon any suggestion, or are there some topics you won't tackle?
Yes, I'm constantly thrilled with the great suggestions we get from people. I think people are attracted to One Night Only because they get to participate in creating the musical, so they tend to give us great titles for made up songs they really, really want to see.
They feel a part of it, so they don't try to mess us up.
We'll tackle pretty much any topic. The only time we tend to decline a suggestion is if we've already had it before. (The cast is tired of doing cat musicals.)
Q - What's the hardest part of doing improvised musicals?
We have a very complex but rewarding structure. At the top of our show, we improvise a sung overture using the song titles the audience gives us.
Then later in the show, we reprise those very same songs. Our actors have to create a brand new song, and then 30 minutes later they have to remember and repeat a song that didn't exist 31 minutes ago.
The actors make it look easy. But it's hard!
As Tom Hanks once said, "It's supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great."
Q - What made you want to be part of this project?
I'd been studying and creating musical improv with The Second City and other Chicago theaters for years – and loved it – but I'd always wanted to find a way to up the ante.
Then in 2012, I had the opportunity to pitch a show to a Broadway production company called The Araca Group. They produced shows like "Wicked" and "Urinetown."
I decided I wanted to show them how great an improvised musical can be, so rather than pitching them with a Keynote presentation, I recruited my favorite musical improvisers to make up a spontaneous musical in The Araca Group's conference room.
It worked. They loved it, and they selected us to appear Off Broadway. That's how "One Night Only" was born.
Q - It seems like musical director Mike Descoteaux is the perfect person to be part of the production, having composed 1,000 improvised musicals. What does he bring to the table?
This show wouldn't be possible without Mike Descoteaux. He'll be embarrassed that I'm saying this, but he's the best music director on the planet.
The way he weaves together memorable melodies, all while recognizing what the show needs thematically and comedically, is truly unparalleled. Chicagoans should come to see this show for Mike D alone... before he returns home to Boston!
Q - How did you go about putting together the cast? What criteria did you use in choosing the cast members?
Honestly, I'm working with my comedy heroes. This was a project ambitious enough and with enough stature to approach all the people I most wanted to work with.
Our director TJ Shanoff is one of the most accomplished comedy guys in the city. No one I know has his vast knowledge of musical theater history combined with a knack for broad yet smart comedy.
Watching TJ and Mike D lead these guys in rehearsal is like sitting in a masters class. They make the whole thing go.
To cast "One Night Only," TJ and I knew we needed the right mix of people. People who are not only fearless and funny, but also have the vocal talent and the dramatic sensibility to create spontaneous musical theater.
Our actors can land a moment just as hard as they can land a joke.
Kate Cohen, Matthew Van Colton, Katie Dufresne, Nicole Hastings, Andrew Knox and Kate McGroarty are the most talented musical improvisers I know. Also, I consider them all dear friends. It was easy to cast them... I'm just relieved they keep saying yes.
Q - You are also part of the cast along with being the producer. Is it hard to do both? Do you desire to be both on the stage and behind the stage?
It's really hard to do both. We grew the cast this run in large part so I didn't have to play every show and could focus a little more on my producer responsibilities.
I love being on stage. I consider myself an actor first.
But I tell young improvisers all the time: your favorite projects will inevitably be the ones you make happen on your own. My friends and I have shaped "One Night Only" to be exactly the kind of show we wanted to create.
You have to do some behind-the-scenes work to make that happen.
Q - After "One Night Only" closes, what's next? Do you have any dream projects?
Here's the thing: "One Night Only" is my dream project. And when we close this run at Stage 773, my hope is we find a way to do it again and again and again.