Why critics are scorning new rock musical Gettin’ the Band Back Together — and why it deserves your love

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<p>Why critics are scorning this new rock musical — and why it deserves your love instead.</p>
<p id=Gettin’ the Band Together, now playing on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, is an original musical about a down-and-out stockbroker who gets his high school band back together in time to face off against his old rival in his New Jersey hometown’s Battle of the Bands.

That’s it. That’s the whole show. On paper, it sounds pretty boring: a stockbroker? An all-dude rock band? From Jersey? Is this really what the world needs in 2018?

But I suspected there must have been some reason that in this age of high-glitz adaptations of movies and other blockbusters, this unassuming original rock musical had struggled its way from a small-town Jersey stage to Broadway, and so I set out for the Belasco hoping to find magic and wisdom and a reflection of the self, or at the very least a fun evening.

The onstage story of Gettin’ the Band Back Together is a basic battle of good and evil — of following dreams versus settling for mundanity — playing out in song and dance. As a fellow theatergoer who’d already seen the show described it, it’s basically the movie Dodgeball but with rock music. And that’s not a bad thing, unless you hate fun.

Gettin’ the Band Back Together is a warm, infectious delight. Yes, it’s true that the show has been prominently panned because its shamelessly tropey plot is packed with dorky, improv-style humor that constantly pelts you with silly jokes, visual gags, cheesy puns, physical comedy, and references to other rock musicals. But it works anyway, because it’s performed with deep joy, it’s extremely well-sung, and it’s delivered with charm by an ensemble having the time of their lives. If you let all of these things speak to you, as you should, then at some point during the performance, you will inevitably reach that wonderful moment where you are laughing purely because you are laughing.

It’s this feeling that illustrates what ultimately made a lasting impression on me as I alternately laughed and cringed my way through the show: not the onstage battle between bands, but an offstage one. The musical that Gettin’ the Band Back Together is trying to be is distinctly at odds with the current Broadway culture — embodied by an unmoved audience at the performance I attended — that unfairly expects it to be something more.

Gettin’ the Band Back Together is refreshingly earnest and exuberantly silly

The truth is that Gettin’ the Band Back Together is a delightful show. But even if it weren’t, I would be writing this review with my heart on my sleeve to tell you all to go see it, because it’s one of those musicals that earnestly strives to be exactly what it is: a good-hearted, shamelessly self-indulgent trope factory built on fun and silliness. And in this age of problematic faves and anxiety-laden media consumption, this show, practically wholesome in its throwback juvenilia, is the rare offering that isn’t going to make you feel bad for liking it — even though it’s inane.

In that spirit, it’s reminiscent of another recent tropey, heartwarming cultural offering: Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. On some level, Gettin’ the Band Back Together is the movie’s Broadway equivalent — a sort of To All the Bands (or Least Rock Musicals) I’ve Loved Before. So what if its storyline is familiar? So what if it openly embraces every clichéd tale of down-and-out has-beens getting their groove back? Just like To All the Boys, its execution is solid, and its cast is charismatic. In essence, it’s a “cheesy cover band” equivalent of a rock musical. And that’s perfectly fine; after all, there’s a reason people love cheesy cover bands.

Put another way, Gettin’ the Band Back Together is one giant dad joke, if your dad were still a kid at heart, and that kid was a giant Nickelodeon fan who never got over Ren and Stimpy going downhill after season two, who secretly cried when My So-Called Life ended before Angela and Brian got together, who definitely got drunk at Bonnaroo and wrote “fuck Nickelback” on a fence while stoned; someone who, in adulthood, probably owns a Blu-ray of Drumline because he wants to be close to that movie in a physical way; someone who just wants his kid to be happy and kind and motivated by love rather than by a capitalist reading of the American dream.

The show sports a decently catchy, fun score by Mark Allen, making his Broadway debut. The cast — led by the charmingly winsome Mitchell Jarvis as Mitch, our stockbroker-cum-band reuniter, lover, dreamer, and Alex Brightman impersonator — performs it with loud conviction. But the real star of Gettin’ the Band Back Together is the book, which comes to us via veteran producer Ken Davenport and the improv comedy troupe Grundleshotz, in a literal “Hey, gang! Let’s put on a show!” process. (Among the Grundleshotz improv performers is Jay Klaitz, who doubles as Mitch’s MILF-obsessed, stoner best friend Bart.)

Grundleshotz, Davenport, and Allen have infused Gettin’ the Band Back Together with so much energy that it leaks out of the stage at random moments, punctuating an endless stream of jokes that succeed due to the sheer enthusiasm and dedication of the show’s cast, and to their own shameless silliness.

Writing down the jokes can’t translate their onstage effectiveness as a litany of Dadaist dork humor, but here are a few: There’s a dead cat. There’s a “nuns and roses” quip. There’s an R&B singer who turns love songs into domestic disputes. There’s a character whose only purpose in life is to take selfies. There’s a spray-tanned villain who drives a Pontiac Solstice and just wants to be loved. There’s a love ballad composed entirely of bad puns about police. There’s a running “your mom” gag. There’s every kind of New Jersey in-joke you can wedge into a two-hour running time. There’s a one-liner that’s such a cute, absurdist mix of juvenile humor and randomness that it literally stops the show.

I should repeat that: The songs are solid and fun, but it’s the jokes, not the songs, that you’ll remember.

Gettin’ the Band Back Together succeeds because it reminds us all you really need is heart — and that goes for the musical itself

Taken on their own, the jokes in Gettin’ the Band Back Together are nothing unique or exhilarating, but they work because the cast is so committed to selling them. In fact, I have rarely seen a more committed, joyous ensemble work so hard to win over a dead audience than I did during my Thursday night show. I’ve never seen a cast sing their hearts out with more glee and vibrance in the face of a crowd that clearly rejected the kind of show they were attending. Thank god for my seatmates Tyler and Bradley, who were there to see the show for the second time in a week, and who were living for Gettin’ the Band Back Together the way only we queer Broadway fans living through the homophobic cake years can.

“This is the kind of show I can take my Trump-voting brother to and we’ll bond over it,” Tyler told me before the show started.

“I cried,” Bradley added.

“It’s so dumb,” Tyler gushed to me at intermission. “It’s so dumb, isn’t it amazing?”

This show is so dumb, and it is amazing. It is so funny, so soft and joyous, that during intermission, I texted a friend who refused to come see it with me solely to upbraid her for her mistake. Meanwhile, my betrayer audience sat unmoved by the endless adorkable hilarity playing out in front of them. And every second that the sea of unenthused faces around me refused to be swept along by the ebullient hopes and dreams of a bunch of New Jersey ’90s kids who just wanted to have fun again, I resented not only them but the modern theater industry itself.

After all, only Broadway could build an American musical legacy out of exploiting camp for its cultural mileage, and yet somehow wind up increasingly abandoning ironic forms of entertainment — including “so bad it’s good” enjoyment.

In recent years, Broadway has conditioned audiences to expect either high-budget remakes with canned messages and blatant crowd-pandering (last season’s Spongebob comes to mind) or high-budget sophistication à la Dear Evan Hansen. Hell, even Gettin’ the Band Back Together, with its crop of references to aging rock artists, was designed to appeal to a certain crowd of baby boomers, to its detriment and their apathy.

But at heart, this isn’t a musical for boomers; instead, it represents and caters to the kind of media-savvy fan who fully embraces absurdity and silliness in their pop culture (the sillier, the better). As such, Gettin’ the Band Back Together desperately needs a younger audience, or at least a better older one.

Who were these people sitting around me who refused to show any enthusiasm for a stellar ensemble that served up some of the strongest group vocals I’ve heard since Evan Hansen? Who were these people who sat largely unmoved while our band of heroes rocked a bar mitzvah, reminisced about the roller coasters at Six Flags Great Adventure, and overcame numerous trials and obstacles to not only find love and happiness but receive a deus ex machina from none other than a fictional version of Aerosmith’s Joe Perry?

As it happened, a good portion of my fellow audience members had apparently come to see Gettin’ the Band Back Together because they’d received comped or discounted tickets as part of Broadway deal websites like Show Score. Through these kinds of watch-and-rate deals, some theatergoers — thanks to retirement, or sheer determination — are able to see upward of five shows a week.

That’s great for them, and ostensibly it should be good for shows that open in the summer, like this one. Late-summer Broadway openings tend to be rare for New York, because the tourist crowd doesn’t gravitate toward new releases that don’t already have strong buzz; you need New Yorkers to see those shows, and in August, they’re often away.

So these websites help fill seats during the offseason, which is a win. But it’s easy to see how they can hurt shows like this one, which wind up being viewed by an assembly line of people looking for deals first and feels second. It struck me that while teenage audiences were being encouraged, off-Broadway, to Be More Chill, on 44th Street, the cast of Gettin’ the Band Back Together was pleading with their older, middle-class audience to be less chill. And, miracle of miracles, eventually the audience at my show thawed out; gradually, more and more of them seemed to open their hearts to the silliness and sincerity of this show, its complete lack of irony and pretense, its sheer eagerness to make you laugh.

But they couldn’t have done it without my dudes Bradley and Tyler, whose constant laughter kept the orchestra section on life support all night. Late in the third act, veteran Marilu Henner, who plays Mitch’s mom with brassy warmth, came halfway up the aisle just to film the two of them — cast members breaking the fourth wall to film the audience is not an infrequent practice on Broadway these days, but rarely is it done with such specificity — as they lost their minds over the big finale number, when Mitch and the band finally play the Battle of the Bands. It’s exciting!

I was happy for them both, these pure-hearted theater lovers receiving a pure-hearted musical blessing, and feeding all their love and energy back to this hard-working, earnest cast. That is what we come to the theater for. That is Broadway at its core, stripped of size and massive budgets and pretension, until all that remains is love and communion.

At intermission, I’d overheard one of the comped five-show-a-week people say, with a shrug, “Maybe it’ll run for a few weeks.”

Fuck that.

Go see Gettin’ the Band Back Together. Enter with love and leave with laughter. May it, and all the other plucky, misunderstood musicals of its ilk, run forever.