Presented by Amy Engelhardt and Heather Shields, the musical-theatre game show “Tune in Time” has been playing in New York City for a couple of years now. Currently it appears regularly at the York Theatre Company. This rollicking show pits three composer/lyricist teams against one another as they strive to write coherent and entertaining songs in a mere 20 minutes, based on key words submitted by the audience. The rules, time lines, and protocol of the game have been worked out in fine detail, although the game nevertheless unfolds in a spirit of controlled chaos. As the evening’s host, Emily McNamara, and her sidekick, musical director Nate Buccieri, remind the audience throughout the show, “Tune in Time” is best enjoyed with a potent potable. (Fortunately, such refreshment is available in the York lobby.)
Before the show begins, arriving audience members are urged to write a noun on one scrap of paper and a verb on another scrap of a different color. These submissions are collected in a container, from which the competitors will draw. The teams do not consist of established collaborators: A composer may well wind up working with a lyricist with whom he or she is completely unfamiliar.
First up onstage, members of “Team A” are introduced to the audience. They each perform a number from their song catalog, to give the audience a glimpse of what they are capable of when writing at their leisure. They then draw a noun scrap and a verb scrap from the collected audience submissions. From these, a song idea/title will be devised.
On the night I attended (November 28), Team A (Alex Rubin and Clay Zambo) picked the words “gulp” and “velociraptor.” A game wheel was then spun to determine the genre of the song-to-be. The wheel stopped at “1950s/1960s pop.” They were then ushered offstage to create the song they would reveal and perform 20 minutes later.
As the evening progressed, Teams B and C had their turns going through this same routine. Team B (Avi Amon and Drew Fornarola) were charged with writing a rock-opera-style number with a title incorporating the words “spank” and “pie.” Team C (Amanda D’Archangelis and Billy Recce) picked the words “jump” and “borscht,” and set off to create a song for a horror musical.
In the gaps created while the teams work offstage, plenty of activity is going on before the audience. There are “Quick Wits” rounds, in which contestants earn bonus points by creating song titles for imaginary musicals. The judges get a chance to introduce themselves to the audience. And McNamara and Buccieri perform original material and throw quips about freely. Keeping the proceedings moving along briskly was Peter Michael Marino, functioning as “Keeper of the Watch” (standing in for the show’s regular timekeeper, Sheila Head).
McNamara, Buccieri, and Marino are all sharp-witted hams and talented improvisers. They do tend to toss out any old smart remark that comes to mind—the sillier and campier the better. Not surprisingly, some gags land well while others miss the mark by a considerable distance. Occasionally the three moderators seem to forget that not everyone in the audience is a theatre person who will get all the in-jokes. In short, there’s never a dull moment at “Tune in Time,” but there may be a few baffling ones.
The level of quality that a team of talented songwriters is able to bring forth in less than a half hour can be impressive. Of course, one can’t expect flawless works of art to be concocted in such a brief time. The melodies understandably tend to center around a few basic chords, without a lot of elegant or complex melody lines. As for lyrics, the meter and syntax are pretty loose, and rhymes tend to be inexact. Still, it’s fun to hear what the contenders come up with. (It might have been even more fun had I taken to heart the moderators’ advice and imbibed something from the lobby.)
I imagine I’ll never hear the winning number from the November 28 edition on any stage other than the York’s. That said, I agreed with the judges, who proclaimed Rubin and Zambo’s “The Gulping Velociraptor” (a ballad sung from the perspective of a lovesick, tongue-tied teenage dinosaur) the victor. Besides the prestige of winning, Rubin and Zambo were presented with $10 gift certificates from Duane Reade, which—as McNamara and Buccieri helpfully pointed out—have the added benefit of being honored at Walgreens stores everywhere.
York Theatre Company at St. Peter’s – Ongoing; next show December 12