From the outset, it seemed as though the team behind Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical had set out to annoy Broadway snobs like me, which admittedly isn’t that hard to do. Let’s start with the show’s title–an obvious misnomer, since it was performed at The Town Hall, a performance space in the theater district that is conspicuously not among the 41 venues designated as official Broadway houses. Visitors who attended the one-time-only performance on Sunday, February 3, also had the opportunity to purchase actual Skittles in the lobby, which fit nicely with the theme, but then led to a cacophony of candy-wrapper crinkling at curtain time, a theatergoer’s pet peeve if there ever was one, to say nothing of the unpleasant odor of corn syrup that filled the venue.
Pet-peeve stoking aside, it’s hard to fault Skittles Commercial for what could easily have been a winning premise. The half-hour show, defiantly brisk and unpolished, featured Broadway veteran Michael C. Hall and a talented cast of stage professionals as they pretended to explore the commercial and philosophical implications of producing an elaborate stage musical whose sole purpose was to sell candy.
If we’re being honest, the musical’s conception, execution, and raison d’être have more in common with modern Broadway than I’d personally like to admit. Hell, it follows the playbook to a tee: Find a product with a built-in fan base, hire a creative team, and reverse-engineer a musical. Can we really complain about Skittles doing this when it’s playing just a few blocks away from idle musical adaptations like King Kong and Pretty Woman? The difference here is that Skittles Commercial knows it’s ridiculous. It’s also a charity event, with ticket proceeds going toward Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, so at least it’s for a good cause.
That doesn’t make it good, though. When the show was first announced a few weeks ago, my colleague Jeff Beer called it “an ambitious act of event advertising,” which is as good a description as any. As a piece of musical theater, though, it feels like a concept in search of a product, a scattershot attempt at self-referential farce that borders on embarrassing.
The story, if we can call it that, opens on Super Bowl Sunday at a neighborhood bodega, where a store owner and his neighbor are discussing the big game. Hall, who plays himself, enters in a flamboyant cat costume, somewhat distraught over the fact that he is starring in a Skittles commercial, both in the fictional version of the musical and in the real world. Several actors play audience members, who leap from their seats throughout the theater and lodge various complaints about the show we’re watching on stage. It’s a funny device that garners some of the show’s biggest laughs (one faux audience member goes off on a hilarious non sequitur about America’s urgent need for a national high-speed rail system), but it never really goes anywhere.
There’s a difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness, and Skittles Commercial arrives at the latter by trying too hard for the former. Book writer Will Eno, a Pulitzer finalist for his 2005 drama Thom Pain (based on nothing), crafted a bare-bones, nihilistic narrative that was so overly concerned with being meta, it never gave us a reason to let down our cynicism. Ditto for the songs by Drew Gasparini, in particular the hokey opening number, “This Might Have Been a Bad Idea,” and its closing refrain, “This Definitely Was a Bad Idea.” We get it! The show’s creators and everyone else involved are in on the joke, but I couldn’t help but wonder: a joke on whom?
As the headlining actor, Hall had the admittedly tough task of giving the show the bold-faced credibility it needed, and his excellent comedic timing helped score some much-needed laughs. But I never got the sense that he was truly giving in to the absurdity of the whole thing. Hall’s fictional counterpart is beset by shame: He’s an A-list actor who clearly believes he’s too good to be there. The problem is, the real-life Hall really seemed like he didn’t want to be there. He is muted when the show needs him to let loose, particularly in his final moments, when he is sent to the afterlife, bound in chains, conversing with Winston Churchill, and on the verge of his ultimate revelation. Yes, that’s the kind of show this is.
Maybe it’s silly to quibble with something this ludicrous, especially since it’s a one-off production without the benefit of workshopping or development. I’m guessing we’ll never hear from Skittles Commercial again, and yet even in its decided impermanence, it felt like a missed opportunity to say something meaningful about advertising and its tradeoffs.
All the same, it was still better than Pretty Woman.