Now in rehearsals and about to begin previews at Off-Broadway’s Greenwich House Theater on July 9, the highly anticipated Broadway Bounty Hunter – by Be More Chill sensations Joe Iconis, Jason SweetTooth Williams, and their longtime collaborator Lance Rubin – is ready to #DropkickThePatriarchy with a team of formidable women in the lead and behind the scenes. The action-adventure musical comedy, newly revised after its acclaimed sold-out regional run at Barrington Stage Company, weaves the story of a 60-something down-on-her-luck out-of-work widowed actress turned Kung-Fu-fighting bounty hunter, who discovers her true strength and identity in her empowering journey from bad auditions in NYC to catching the bad guys in the jungles of South America.
I spoke to director/choreographer Jennifer Werner and lead producers Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Allison Bressi about the significance of the work, the team, and taking on the status quo.
How did you become involved in the show and in what capacity?
JAT: I have been collaborating with Joe Iconis & Family for over a decade now. My first internship, while I was a student at NYU, was at the Off-Broadway York Theatre. While there, I discovered a dusty demo in a box in an office that included some songs by a new musical theater writer named Joe Iconis. I immediately thought they were the greatest, and after attending a couple Joe Iconis & Family concerts, I was positive this group was creating the most exciting musical theater of our day. I worked on the musical [title of show] shortly after and one of our co-producers was also producing a five-performance run of Joe’s theatrical song cycle Things To Ruin. I told her I would do anything to assist her on it, and that’s how I came to collaborate with Joe Iconis & Family for the first time in 2009. Ever since I have worked on every project of Joe’s in some capacity, from starting out as producing assistant to now lead producing Broadway Bounty Hunter – and have done everything in between! When Broadway Bounty Hunter first began life as an idea the writers had around 2011, I was around. I was part of it unofficially – just a member of our creative and collaborative Family, giving input and helping as needed, as the show was developed in readings. And then I was there throughout the entire Barrington Stage run in 2016. I did not have an official job title on the show at that point. When the opportunity arose to produce Broadway Bounty Hunter with Allison Bressi Off-Broadway at the Greenwich House Theater during the summer of 2019, it felt like the right timing and the right circumstances to continue with the musical and to grab the reigns of the ship in an official capacity as producer.
AB: Joe Iconis’s agent contacted me, saying that Joe and his writing partners Jason SweetTooth Williams and Lance Rubin were looking for a producer to work with them on a production of their musical Broadway Bounty Hunter in New York City. I read the book and listened to the demos. I never read or heard anything like it and knew I never would again, so I decided I had to work on this show. I met with the writers to discuss and to see if it was a good fit, and I fell as in love with them as I did with the project. They have amazing ideas and are so passionate about their work; they take such good care of it, yet they are also so open to collaboration and new ideas. I love that their work is made by a community of artists, and I love that the idea of producing this truly original musical for, and alongside, this incredible artistic community was, and still is, so exciting to me.
JW: I became involved over a year and a half ago when the writers emailed me asking if I would be interested in coming on board to direct and to choreograph the Off-Broadway production. I have enjoyed a really great creative working relationship with Joe, Jason, and Lance on many shows over the last decade. We all have a shorthand and similar sensibility about theater, comedy, and life in general. They knew I loved this piece; the story, the characters, and the ‘70s funky R&B vibe were all very much up my alley.
What’s the most exciting thing about working with a large team of women on this project?
JAT: I have never worked on any project with such a diverse group of collaborators, on stage and off, in EVERY department, in terms of gender, race, age, and more. There are so many different perspectives in the room and that’s led to conversations about all elements of Broadway Bounty Hunter (and beyond!) that I don’t think we’d be having otherwise. I do feel like the incredible number of women on our team has impacted what people are seeing on stage in a powerful way. We are presenting a musical about a woman of a certain age who doesn’t have to play a kooky mom or sidekick neighbor, but is playing an action-adventure hero who is the center of her own story; Annie Golden is such a kick-ass female role model, someone who refused ever to fit into a box, and she is constantly lifting up women around her and encouraging them. And there are so many more women killing it on our team, from our female director/choreographer and designers, to our all-female stage management team and press team, to our majority female co-producing team, the female members of our band, and all of the amazing women on stage and beyond. It has been so inspiring to have women working in all of these capacities on Broadway Bounty Hunter.
JW: The large ratio of women designers and producers on this show is not something I’ve ever experienced before either, and I love it. There’s also such diversity among the entire team, which is really exciting. We all have different life experiences and points of view to draw upon as artists, but at the same time we are all very much on the same page about how we are going to tell this story. Everyone is also exceptionally talented at what they do, so the collaborative energy and tone elevate every aspect of our show.
AB: For me, the most exciting thing is being in a room that is led with empathy, a strong sense of the importance of all individuals, and relationships coming together to make this musical. I know I can ask a question or send an email and it will be answered in a timely, respectful, and collaborative way by our leadership. I’ve worked in many rooms, in many processes, with many wonderful people, but this room feels so different; I think a big part of that is because it’s led by strong women and by men who celebrate the thoughts and ideas that strong women bring. From on stage to backstage to our creative team, we have some Broadway and Off-Broadway greats, but there is no ego, no “I’m above this” – everyone is sharing a really small space and giving all of their love, time, and resources to make this beautiful monster of a musical happen. This is in part because we are working with true professionals, but I think it’s also because, as a team, we try very hard to understand how each person wants to work, anticipate challenges, and manage everyone who touches this production in a way that is personal and specific to how each individual likes to be treated. Those may seem like small things, but the right words can sometimes be the difference between a show that happens and a show that doesn’t. We are not successful every time, but this is the way I’ve always tried to lead, and to be surrounded by women who also work in this way is such a relief and makes me think there is so much hope for the future leadership of our industry.
What separates the three male co-writers Joe Iconis, Jason SweetTooth Williams, and Lance Rubin from the mainstream patriarchy that you’d like to dropkick?
JW: Well, for starters, they have been writing and telling stories about the underdog and marginalized people their whole careers, this is not a new thing they just discovered in 2019. They have always had compassion, empathy, and curiosity for telling peoples’ stories who don’t look like them, and the richness and complexity of their characters speak volumes. I think for women and people of color to find more inclusion in this business there needs to be a multi-pronged approach; more opportunity just to get your foot in the door and to work for sure, but also there also needs to be more people like them who actually care about and are interested in advancing other people’s stories.
JAT: These white male writers took the platform and privilege that they have and used it to give opportunities to people who don’t have that platform or privilege. They were inspired to create this show for Annie Golden because they collaborated with her on The Black Suits and thought, Why isn’t anyone giving this phenomenal woman of a certain age a star vehicle? They hired Jennifer Werner as director/choreographer because they’d seen her do amazing work for years but never get the platform she deserved to do a show at this level in New York. They hugely wanted to prioritize hiring actors of color and the show was built around that. Nehemiah Luckett, our artistic consultant, has been part of the Broadway Bounty Hunter process to facilitate open conversations about all of its elements. After he led a roundtable discussion about some of the racial aspects of the show, he commented to me about how unique he felt it was in terms of the specific way that our writers were collaborating with our actors. Because of the foundation of the artistic Family that’s been built and is at the root of this show, it feels like everyone in the room has an equal voice – and, in this case, that has created an environment with a lot of contributions coming from all kinds of people. I also think that right on the heels of Be More Chill, Joe Iconis could’ve chosen to use his newfound position in the industry to get a different kind of job or work with a different set of people . . . but elevating and celebrating everything that’s the opposite of the mainstream patriarchy is what he chose to do instead.
AB: I honestly have trouble articulating my answer to this question because those men are so far away from the patriarchy that it’s hard for me to imagine what separates them from it. I would say one thing is that they are so open and secure with themselves that they are not threatened by other ideas, thoughts, or criticisms. Joe, Jason, or Lance never make anything about them, everything is always about the community. They just want to make their show the best it can be with the very best people, while taking great care of those people. They wrote this show about women, a diverse cast of characters, and community before these ideals were ever talked about in our industry. They wanted to lift up the marginalized and under-estimated and to work with those same folks in creating it. They take notes and feedback from those who are not like them and they celebrate, acknowledge, and appreciate the work we all do. Much of the leading with empathy during our process is due to the women on our team, but I would say the rest of it is due to a standard these writers set for the rooms they work in. They’ve created a beautiful community to make this show, and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.
Have you seen any significant changes in the system over the course of your career? What issues still need to be addressed?
JAT: I think nearly the entire industry is now prioritizing hiring and promoting women, which is incredible. I do think we need to address this idea that women should MAINLY be prioritized as collaborators when the story being told centers around women. I would like for all productions to prioritize parity, diversity, and inclusivity no matter what their topic is. There is no reason a woman won’t bring just as much to the table for a show centered on a man, or on space aliens, as they will for a show specifically about women. And every show on every topic is going to be more powerful and more like the world when there are women AND men AND non-binary individuals talking, when there are perspectives that are LGBTQAI+ AND not, when there are people of all races given a seat, and so on. Right now we’re having good conversations in the industry as a whole about making sure that people of certain backgrounds have a seat at the table to tell their own stories, but in the end they should have a seat at the table to tell ALL stories. And artists who have been marginalized should be collaborating WITH the people who have not been, instead of making their own work in a bubble. That’s how we move forward to make better things together.
AB: Yes, I think the biggest change I’ve seen over my ten years of working in theater in New York City is that we talk things out more now. There’s more space to acknowledge moments that are uncomfortable, more room for people to speak up, and more attention to WHO is doing the speaking up. There are so many more women (both white and of color) in leadership roles, as well as more diversity in general. We still have a ways to go in this area, especially in specific positions, but as I sit in the most diverse room I’ve ever sat in, in terms of gender, race, age, and background, I have a lot of hope for the future and I also hope that I can be a part of addressing it in the projects I choose, the artists I work with, the people I hire, the way I lead, and the way I follow – which sometimes is just as important.
JW: For a long time I have usually been one of the only women in the room. I am seeing more awareness that opportunities for women and persons of color need to be created, which is fantastic. For the people who hire and make those decisions it’s just a matter of working a little harder to find people who aren’t the “easy reach” – meeting with them, checking out their work and portfolios, and taking a chance on someone new. Even with the changes in the industry over the past few years, it’s still very difficult to make a career as a woman because the entrenched culture is so male dominated. I actually find my hardest challenges stem from my being a working mother. The freelance lifestyle and travel demands are particularly challenging to parenthood.
What’s the main message you want to send with this new female-centric work and what do you hope audiences enjoy most about it?
AB: I think my biggest hope is that eventually female-centric work doesn’t have to send a message, it just IS. I hope there comes a time when a female-centric story and/or team is not a big deal, that it’s just something we’ve come to know as normal – whatever that means! Until then, I hope audiences will feel all of the love, sensitivity, collaboration, specificity, hope, humor, and heart that went into the producing, writing, directing, designing, managing, running, and performing of this piece. I’ve come to learn that any show that goes up in New York City is nothing short of a miracle, it doesn’t matter how big or small it is. That being said, the work our artists and personnel have been able to do, and WANTED to do, with limited resources, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope audiences will fall in love with them and embrace them in the same way I do, because they are all truly something!
JAT: As we’ve already discussed, something I have always loved about the musicals and the work that Joe Iconis & Family creates is that it takes people who don’t usually have a voice and allows them to have one. Every show is about the kinds of characters that don’t usually have musicals written about them. Whether that’s a remarkably un-special teenager who ingests a super computer [as in Be More Chill] or a 60-something woman dealing with an ageist, sexist society, who reclaims her own power by becoming a bounty hunter, I love the idea that people who feel pushed to the side, who feel other, can see themselves in this work. Broadway Bounty Hunter is also my favorite thing – a completely original musical. And like so many of my other favorite original musicals, it is incredibly fun and hilarious and filled with unbelievable songs – and then it uses that humor as a way in to deliver a powerful message about how we overcome society’s ideas of who we are supposed to be. I hope audiences walk away feeling that.
JW: I find this show so joyous, hilarious, heartfelt, and the music is unbelievably good. The lead character is a woman of a certain age who finds her inner bad-ass – and part of being a bad-ass is just being comfortable with who you are, and not letting yourself be circumscribed by what others think. I love that ultimately the message is about continuing to find joy and meaning in life, no matter who or where you are in that journey.
Many thanks to all of you for giving us a behind-the-scenes peek at the show and at a trailblazing time in the theater, when women assume their rightful place among the power players!