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At the Lucille Lortel Theatre in downtown Manhattan, Rachel Bloom barrels onstage in a sparkly pantsuit, while dribbling a basketball to the accompaniment of “Space Jam.”
It’s a mix of confidence, silliness and bravado, as Blooms throws the ball to an audience member and then launches into her planned monologue, which includes a joke about her college essay entitled “Use the Cape,” detailing her time as the Witch in her high school production of Into the Woods.
Then, suddenly, the spotted lanternflies that had been hovering around her begin to swarm and Bloom launches into an ad-libbed bit, saying that these flies on wires cost $5 million and were conceived of by her experimental director Julie Taymor (who famously worked on the Broadway show Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark, which had a high price tag and rigged actors flying through the air).
“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is never far from my thoughts and my heart,” Bloom said in an interview the next day with The Hollywood Reporter.
The ability to pivot (and deliver deep-cut musical theater references) is something that Bloom knows well. The co-creator and star of The CW’s musical television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had written a musical stand-up show in 2019 and planned to take it on tour 2020, but the pandemic paused her plans. Then, days after Bloom gave birth to her daughter in March 2020, she received the news that her friend and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend songwriting partner, Adam Schlesinger, had died after contracting COVID-19.
Her original show, which she says included a bit about a nursing home resident singing a pop song in the style of Billie Eilish, no longer seemed to make sense amid the grief for her friend and the events of the pandemic. And so, she created a new production, entitled Death, Let Me Do My Show, which retains just one song from the prior show, and follows Bloom attempting to forget the events of the past few years and then eventually being forced to talk about her friend’s death, complications after the birth of her child and other related trauma (alongside a mix of humorous, original songs in Bloom’s characteristic style).
Bloom has now taken the show, which is directed by Seth Barrish, to London, Los Angeles, and Chicago as well as other cities across the U.S., and said she is happy to have the opportunity to be creative in theater, as a Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA member who is currently on strike and barred from most film and television work. (Pre-pandemic, Bloom had been working with Schlesinger on a musical adaptation of The Nanny, a project that Bloom says she cannot discuss since it is property of a struck company).
“I just feel lucky and also constantly scared for the world of television and film because I remain baffled at the AMPTP’s response and slowness,” Bloom said.
The actress and writer spoke with THR ahead of the show’s off-Broadway opening on Sept. 14 about how the piece came together, the idea of balancing grief with comedy and morale on the picket lines.
What led you to pivot from the original idea for the show?
I had a whiteboard up in my office with a list of all the bits. This is from when I was pregnant, because the plan was, I give birth, go on maternity leave and then I would put this show up in 2020. And I remember one day playing with [my daughter], very early in my grief for Adam, and just looking at this list of things. And when you list out stand-up bits in songs, it looks particularly silly, because it looks like “cum, pregnancy, teen song, old lady pop.” And I remember thinking, “All of this is moot. The world is exploding. This is so stupid.” How stupid would this be if I was like I’m gonna keep just working on this special. And then I was like, “Oh, what if that was the show? That I started to do it, and then called out the exact thought I had which was, “Can you do this? Is there a place for silliness once a bad thing has happened?”
Do you think that there is a place for silliness?
There always is. When I was going through this, the thing that saved me was silly things, watching funny movies, reading silly books. It helped me. There used to be a whole part in the show about how death hates comedy because comedy makes you forget death is coming. And it’s why the show ends with [the song] “Darling Meet Me Under the Cum Tree,” [the only song remaining from the original show] where it’s like at the end of the day, this whole thing is absurd. So who are we to say this thing is serious and this thing isn’t serious?
Does the process of performing help with the grief?
I find that when I talk about painful things in my life, the more I talk about it, the more it scabs over the wound. And in fact, Ben Folds said this one time about his songs, that when you turn your experiences into art and share it with people, it almost becomes something else. I think it’s very healing. So it doesn’t feel retriggering, and in fact, our drummer in the band, Ethan Eubanks, he’s known Adam for 20 years. There’s a joke toward the end of the show about, “What does Adam know about lockdown, he wasn’t even in it for that long,” which is a really dark joke that Ethan suggested, and I was like, “Adam would love that joke.”
How does it feel to be performing this show about the pandemic now, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases?
I think that’s why it’s like important in the show, I say, “It’s not back to normal. We’re still in a pandemic.” In fact, I may add in tonight, “There’s a surge, all of you are wearing masks. I could get sick doing the show.” I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s weird.
You’re also able to perform this while there’s a WGA and a SAG-AFTRA strike going on. How does that feel?
In a world in which off-Broadway theater is steadier than film and TV, I feel very fortunate. I feel just very lucky to be able to create. I get to have something I’m doing right now that I’m passionate about and I just feel lucky and also constantly scared for the world of television and film because I remain baffled at the AMPTP’s response and slowness. It’s just really baffling.
You’ve been a frequent presence on the picket lines. How do you think morale is at this point?
I’m biased because I have a lot of friends who are on the negotiating committee. I have a lot of friends who are strike captains. So, I’m in a group of people who are very, very pro-union. Pro-strike is a weird thing to say because no one wants to strike. No one involved in the WGA or SAG was like, “Woohoo, can’t wait for a strike.” So it’s not pro-strike, but it’s pro-“This is important, what we’re doing.” So from my point of view, morale is, I would say steadfast, and ultimately, the ball, I believe, is in the court of the AMPTP right now. So, you know, all you can do is keep doing what you’ve been doing.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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