Monday, January 19, 2009

A final rehearsal with Will Ferrell

I've had the 24-hour flu but this weekend was the first time I "24-hour flew," to New York City on Saturday and back home on Sunday. I highly recommend the rare experience of leaving the rolling bag at home and sauntering down the jetway with only a New Yorker and a toothbrush.

The trip was occasioned by my good fortune to attend an "invited rehearsal" of Will Ferrell's upcoming Broadway debut, "You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush."

The show begins previews tomorrow (Inauguration Day, appropriately enough), officially opens on February 5 and runs through March 15 at the Cort Theater. Ferrell co-wrote the script with his longtime collaborator Adam McKay, who is also directing.

It's one of those shows that, as soon as you hear about it, you want to see. "Will Ferrell's one-man George W. Bush farewell show live on Broadway" is a five-second pitch any smart producer would buy sight unseen, and three of them did. Heck, even the title is funny.

After months of writing and rehearsing, it has barely been performed in front of an audience, and with its run about to begin, the producers wanted their star and technical staff to get a run-through in front a live crowd before the paying customers arrive. Ferrell had yesterday and today off before he launches into the traditional Broadway schedule of eight shows a week. Thus his final dress rehearsal on Saturday night became a ticketed event.

One of the aforementioned smart producers and I flew out together and he brought me up to date on the Ferrell show and his other current projects. "You're Welcome America" is off to a good start with strong early sales before advertising even began. A lot of people are talking about it and many of them are buying tickets.

With the show beginning previews this week, the creative team has been promoting its work. Will Ferrell sat down with the New York Times' Patrick Healy for a nice preview feature that appeared in yesterday's Arts & Leisure section. The outspoken McKay drops a few rhetorical bombs in that article as he does in this on-camera interview from

And, of course, they've also been doing what they do best, creating a series of amusing Ferrell-as-Bush videos for use in television ads and direct viewing on the Internet. Here's one example:

The show's website,, is also getting into the act. For weeks it's been a placeholder with a show poster and a link to buy tickets. It got a facelift in the last few days and is now an imagining of what Bush's MySpace page might look like.

But enough about the marketing campaign, what about the show itself? Terrific. Loved it. It's hilarious and damning, smart in its dumbness, politically pointed, a survey of Bush's life broken into the chapters you'd expect (childhood, Yale, those pesky two decades of idle drunkenness and drug abuse, Texas, 2000 election, September 11, Katrina, Iraq war) with some silly fictional stuff mixed in.

McKay and Ferrell made a good writing choice by not editorializing or opining, but rather airing true facts and actual quotes and letting Bush's own record convict him in the court of public opinion. And it's flat-out funny, with a boatload of solid jokes maintaining the momentum between painful reminders of statesmanship gone awry.

All in all, it's a polished, highly entertaining show that will please the crowds and offer a cathartic measure of closure. As I told the producer afterward, he's got a hit on his hands.

In full disclosure, I should mention that I am involved in the show as an investor, but these are my honest opinions, and anyway it doesn't matter what I say about it. This thing is already becoming a runaway train even though almost no one has seen it yet. Despite the lack of critical reviews or informed word-of-mouth, not to mention the ongoing recession and that it's Broadway's traditional slowest time of year, there's a feeding frenzy underway at the box office.

I'm sharing the story because I think it's interesting and to offer a word to the wise. The theatrical run is just eight weeks long and I urge anyone who wants tickets to grab them before it's too late. From what I hear that will be pretty soon.

It's easy to understand why. Yes, Ferrell is a popular movie star, but it's more than that. The Bush presidency was for so many people a waking nightmare that felt like it would never end. Now that America's least favorite houseguest is finally bumbling out the door, this show provides a richly deserved kick in the pants to help him on his way. Buying a ticket is saying "me too."

The rehearsal I saw wasn't quite the first performance, as Ferrell and McKay mounted a secret show a few weeks ago at Largo in L.A. for friends and fans of Funny or Die, their comedy website. Someone who was there posted a rave review, which I second. Based on Saturday's crowd reaction -- people laughing uproariously, giving Ferrell an enthusiastic standing ovation, and texting their friends to buy tickets -- I'm not the only one.

It was a privilege to be one of the first people to see "You're Welcome America." Congratulations to all involved for putting together this satisfying piece of American theater.

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